ATLANTA — First lady Michelle Obama was welcomed with thunderous cheers and told the 550 graduating from Spelman College, an historically black women’s school, that no matter where they go, they need to bring the school’s ideals to the world.
The graduates welled with pride upon her arrival, even as she clapped enthusiastically for their achievements. In Obama, the young women see the essence of the successful, black career women many of them hope to become. But her message to the Class of 2011 of service to others and helping the underserved also reflected her roles as first lady and a major campaigner for her husband.
Obama delivered four commencement addresses this season, and her choices were politically strategic as the president gears up for the 2012 campaign for a second term. She was in Iowa last week and in coming weeks will speak to graduating seniors at Quantico Middle High School in Virginia, to graduates whose parents serve at the Quantico Marine Base.
“Find those folks who have so much potential but so little opportunity and do for them what Spelman has done for you,” Obama said. “No matter where you go in the world, you will find folks who have been discounted or dismissed, but who have every bit as much promise as you have. They just haven’t had the chance to fulfill it. It is your obligation to bring Spelman to those folks. Be as ambitious for them as Spelman has been for you.”
Most of the crowd were predictably mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, or female cousins — all filling the 10,000-seat exhibit hall to see the first lady.
Her appearance at Spelman’s ceremony was a coup for the 130-year-old college, which competed with institutions across the country for her to appear as commencement speaker, lobbying her on YouTube, in petitions and letters. Spelman also conferred an honorary doctorate of laws degree on Obama, who earned her juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.
Her popularity, which rivals her husband’s in the black community, was built on her image as a strong, supportive wife and mother accomplished in her own right as a lawyer and corporate professional. But on Sunday, Obama chose to highlight her work as a public servant, working to prepare young people for public service in Chicago after she left corporate America, as the footsteps she encouraged the graduates to follow.
Markieta Woods said Obama is more than just the president’s wife.
“This role has in no way made her less significant,” said Woods, 21, of Los Angeles. “It’s one of the top positions in the world. The media has it wrong so much when it comes to who African-American women are. She does a good job of bringing a balance to those images. She really does break a lot of the stereotypes.”
Those in the audience shared similar sentiments.
“She definitely is a representation of what African-American women are about and what we are: believing in yourself and believing in your dreams, being proud of who you are,” said Terrolynn Perry-Ponder, who got a coveted graduation ticket from her sister-in-law. “We believe in giving back, making the world a better place, providing an opportunity for other people to achieve their dreams. Her role has changed, but she can empower more people.”
As first lady, Obama has continued to stick to the issues that carried her professionally for years — including health care and families — but she does not force her way into the policy arena, unlike an equally accomplished Hillary Clinton during her years in the White House.
In many ways, her changing responsibilities still speak to black women like Shandria Stanley. The 36-year-old Atlanta educator and her husband run a nonprofit after school and summer camp program focused on academics and athletics.
“Her mission for kids is our mission as well,” Stanley said, adding that her opinion of Obama has only gotten better. “She has a major role now. People are always watching her. It takes a special person to deal with everything it takes to be first lady.”
Spelman President Beverly Tatum said that although Obama may have had to put her career on hold, she still represents a long tradition of African-American women multitasking.
“If you look at the role black women have held historically in society, we have been very much in the workplace as well as caretakers,” Tatum said. “She’s making visible to the larger white community what we as African-American women have understood for generations. I would argue that she’s having a broader impact today because she has a much bigger platform.”
Marian Mereba, who graduated with an English degree, said Obama is still a working mother who is using her position for the greater good.
“She’s still a beacon of strength and intelligence,” said Mereba, 23, from Philadelphia. “She’s an amazing mother, which is also what a lot of us aspire to be. She shows that you can change the world and still raise a family.”
In speaking at Spelman, Obama talked directly to the members of her husband’s most loyal electorate. Turnout at the polls among black women in 2008 was 69 percent — for the first time making the single largest voting bloc that helped Obama become the country’s first black president and a key demographic as he seeks re-election.
Obama left the graduation ceremony early to attend a private fundraiser aimed at young black professionals at a downtown Atlanta hotel.
Many in this generation liken the Obamas to the real-life version of the fictional iconic black couple, Cliff and Claire Huxtable, the doctor-lawyer duo who, along with their family, represented the colored version of the American dream. Actress Phylicia Rashad — who played the role of Claire — shared the stage with Obama on Sunday, receiving an honorary doctorate degree.
While she gracefully declined to comment directly on the comparison, she called Obama “a great lady who represents many of the ideals of womanhood as powerful, dynamic, creative and nurturing.”
In an era where having it all — husband, career, children — is a bigger challenge than ever before for black women, here comes Obama. That’s why she excited this generation of Spelman about their own possibilities, without even trying to.
Perry-Ponder, who has heard Obama speak twice before and hopes to one day meet her to say thank you.
“She has moved from a state, to the nation, to the world,” said Perry-Ponder. “I get goose bumps just saying that.”