Obama, Malala, Jonas Brothers Send Off Class Of 2020 In Virtual Graduation

May 17, 2020
Originally published on May 17, 2020 3:28 pm

Celebrities, activists, artists and students themselves recognized America's 3 million-plus graduating high school seniors in a widely broadcast ceremony on Saturday night, after the coronavirus crisis robbed the class of 2020 of a crucial milestone.

The virtual event, called Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020, carried a resounding message of community at a time when COVID-19 rules out the possibility of large gatherings.

In his commencement speech, former President Barack Obama told students that they've already faced big challenges to get to this point.

"Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances. Some of you have had to overcome serious obstacles along the way," he said.

And just as seniors were ready to celebrate crossing the finish line, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Acknowledging the new uncertainties introduced by the pandemic, Obama told the class of 2020 that the global health crisis would force them to grow up faster.

"When everything's up for grabs, this is your generation's world to shape," Obama said.

"This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country's deep-seated problems," he said, pointing to economic inequality, systemic racism and health care disparities.

The former president closed with a final piece of advice: Build a community.

"No one does big things by themselves," he said. "If we're going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, we're going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another's struggles. Stand up for one another's rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us."

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Basketball star LeBron James, whose activism has centered on primary education, flipped the "stay home" message spread during the public health crisis into a metaphorical one: "Stay close to home."

"Class of 2020, the world has changed. You will determine how we rebuild, and I ask that you make your community your priority," James said.

Megan Rapinoe, soccer player for the U.S. Women's National Team, told the seniors, "I'm not gonna ask you to come together. I'm going to ask you to demand better."

She encouraged students to vote in November, adding, "Who is leading matters."

Education activist Malala Yousafzai is also missing her graduation, after studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

She asked viewers to remember the young women in the world who won't be able to return to school because the coronavirus crisis pushed them into forced marriages and low-paying jobs.

"As you go out and change the world, don't leave them behind," she said.

The speeches were punctuated by students who thanked teachers, tributes from parents and plenty of TikTok clips.

Musicians stepped in front of green screens that featured videos of seniors dancing and playing instruments. Special appearances were made by Dua Lipa, H.E.R., Zendaya, Shaquille O'Neal, Yara Shahidi, Bad Bunny, Lena Waithe, Pharrell Williams and YBN Cordae.

Broadway star Ben Platt and his brothers, Henry and Jonah Platt, sang an a cappella medley of popular graduation anthems — supported by students' backing vocals — including Vitamin C's "Graduation (Friends Forever)" and the Beatles' "In My Life."

The Jonas Brothers closed out the show with a new song, "X," featuring Karol G, joined by students dancing in sync via video.

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Meanwhile, at least 3.8 million high school seniors are missing their graduation this year. After four years of hard work, students craving recognition and closure got some last night as Olympians, presidents and pop stars celebrated their achievements in a live simulcast event across TV networks and social media platforms. NPR's Catherine Whelan attended, along with everyone else, from her living room.

CATHERINE WHELAN, BYLINE: All across the country, the Class of 2020 gathered in front of their screens as a part of the "Graduate Together" live event, and they had a pretty impressive keynote speaker.


BARACK OBAMA: And all those adults they used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing - turns out they don't have all the answers.

WHELAN: Amid a global pandemic, former President Barack Obama addressed high school seniors with some pretty pointed remarks.


OBAMA: Doing what feels good - what's convenient, what's easy - that's how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown ups - including some with fancy titles and important jobs - still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up.

WHELAN: Obama got the gig a month ago. It started with an invitation from Lincoln Devonham (ph), a senior from Los Angeles who tweeted at the former president.

LINCOLN DEVONHAM: Just thinking, wow, this guy has been president for most of my generation's education. Who better than him?

WHELAN: Devonham's tweet went viral. And Obama wasn't the only one who saw it. NBA star LeBron James was also looking for a way to honor this year's seniors. James hosted the "Graduate Together" event and brought lots of other celebrities on board. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani addressed seniors from a virtual island in a video game called "Animal Crossing."


KUMAIL NANJIANI: Thanks for inviting me to your island. It's the first time I've worn pants in weeks. I'm lying. I'm not wearing any pants under this robe.

WHELAN: Most stars took a more traditional route. The list of speakers at the event included Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai...


MALALA YOUSAFZAI: Like all of you, I'm also missing my graduation ceremony this year.

WHELAN: ...As well as soccer star Megan Rapinoe.


MEGAN RAPINOE: Take the torch and leave your mark. Plant your stake in the ground and build the future that you want.

WHELAN: Musician Bad Bunny gave his speech in Spanish, while Santa Ana, Calif., graduate Priscilla Arseo (ph) - her school's valedictorian - noted she will be the first in her family to attend university.


PRISCILLA ARSEO: We're all facing our own challenges as a generation, as a community and as a planet. But I know we can overcome them.

WHELAN: LeBron James thanked the Class of 2020 for their sacrifice.


LEBRON JAMES: You should have had a real graduation. I know. But you made a sacrifice. You did that to keep your community safe and healthy. On behalf of all of us, thank you.

WHELAN: Catherine Whelan, NPR News.


PLATT BROTHERS: (Singing) It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right. We hope you had the time of your life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.