Barack Obama Offers Advice to Graduating Students Amid Pandemic: "Don't Be Afraid"

Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Obama Foundation Summit  2019 - Getty -H 2020
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LeBron James, Kevin Hart, Lena Waithe, Jonas Brothers and more made featured appearances in the cross-platform special on Saturday.

In recognition of the graduating high school students who cannot attend physical ceremonies amid the coronavirus pandemic, multiple television networks aired Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020 on Saturday.

The event, produced by the XQ Institute, EIF and the LeBron James Family Foundation, featured appearances by James, along with Kevin Hart, Jonas Brothers, Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keys, Lena Waithe, Ben Platt, Zendaya, Olivia Wilde and more, with a commencement speech from former President Barack Obama. 

James kicked off the event, thanking the students for "making a sacrifice to keep [their] community safe and healthy," although it meant not attending a physical graduation ceremony. He later challenged the students to "pursue every ambition, go as far as you possibly can dream, and be the first generation to embrace the new responsibility — the responsibility to rebuild your community. Class of 2020, the world has changed. You will determine how we rebuild, and I ask that you make your community your priority."

One of the students said in a montage, "It wasn’t the year we expected, but we’re going to make it ours anyway." Added another, "We started to figure out that the world was much bigger than we thought, and embraced technology to connect with it."

Soccer star Megan Rapinoe challenged the students to "[p]lant your stake in the ground, and build the future that you want and you believe in. And fight like hell to do it." Meanwhile, Kumail Nanjiani shared some lessons he's learned from the video game Animal Crossing, such as "try new things" and "learn from those who don't look like you."

Obama said in a recorded message, "Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances," and went on to reference common issues that students face in high school. He then spoke about how the global pandemic, in addition to school shootings and other tragic events, has raised the stakes and created new challenges for those entering the workforce. Obama noted that families — even those well-off — are dealing with "massive uncertainty" and that students are going to have to "grow up faster." Sharing a "hard truth," he emphasized that "adults don’t have all the answers."

Challenging the students to take charge, the former president declared, "If the world is going to get better, it’s up to you. This is your generation’s world to shape." He offered three "quick pieces of advice," including "don't be afraid" and "do what you think is right," and emphasized the need to "ground yourself in values that last, like hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity and respect for others." Obama's third piece of advice was to "build a community" because "no one does big things by themselves."

Among the musical performances, Keys delivered "Underdog," while H.E.R. sang the new track "Sometimes" and Dua Lupa performed "Break My Heart." Concluding the event, Jonas Brothers offered up "X" with Colombian singer Karol G.