• Traditional graduation ceremonies cancelled across the US.
  • Michelle Obama gave a virtual address to the Class of 2020.
  • Her tips included: try to learn from periods of uncertainty; speak out against injustices; and value honesty, integrity and compassion.

“A lot of us are reckoning with the most basic essence of who we are. Over these past couple of months, our foundation has been shaken.”

More so than most graduating classes, the 2020 cohort are stepping out into an uncertain world. Against the backdrop of the pandemic and ongoing unrest following the death of George Floyd, Michelle Obama’s commencement address to an online audience acknowledged how scared, confused, angry or “just plain overwhelmed” many students may be feeling right now.

Here are the life lessons the lawyer, author and former First Lady shared with graduates.

Michelle Obama giving a virtual address to the Class of 2020.
Michelle Obama gives her virtual address to the Class of 2020.
Image: YouTube

1. Life will always be uncertain

There will be times when it feels like everything has been turned upside down and you will wish things could go back to the way they were – and this is one of them, Obama says. She urges graduates to use the situation as an opportunity to consider not just the career they might want to build, but also the person they want to be.

“You have the opportunity to learn these valuable lessons faster than the generations before you,” she says. “You can learn them together as a cohort of young people ready to take on the world, no matter how tumultuous it may be.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

2. Treat people right

Honesty, integrity, empathy and compassion are time-tested attributes that take on even more value in uncertain times.

“Treating people right will never fail you,” Obama says. That is not to say that people don’t find success in less honourable ways, but that is a heavy way to live. People who sell falsehoods, blame others and shun those with less privilege and advantage will find they rob themselves of the things that matter most.

Instead, people must take the decision to use their privilege and voice for the things that really matter, and leave the world a little better than they found it.

3. Share your voice

Even if people feel invisible and overlooked right now, they should continue to share their voice with the rest of the world. Nothing will change unless people make their stories, ideas and experiences heard.

“It’s up to you to speak out against cruelty, dishonesty, bigotry, all of it,” Obama says. “It’s up to you to march hand in hand with your allies to stand peacefully with dignity and purpose on the front lines, in the fight for justice.”

Protests need to be backed up with plans and policies, channelling anger to change history. And that change should start within everyone’s own homes and social circles.

“This is how you can finish the work that the generations before you have started, by staying open and hopeful, even in the tough times.”