KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - The prize in a national competition for commencement speaker,President Barack Obama handed out diplomas and a few hugs as the280 graduates of Kalamazoo Central High School filed across a stagein maroon and white gowns Monday night.
Watch Obama's entire speech by clicking on the video to the left
One part of Obama's message was a familiar one for commencementseason: work hard and think of others. Less so was hisencouragement to veer from the path of those who make excuses fortheir problems and blame others for their failures.
"We see it every day out in Washington," the president said,"with folks calling each other names and making all sorts ofaccusations on TV."
Obama said the high school kids can do and have done better thanthat. An advocate for a better-educated work force as a way for theU.S. to stay competitive globally, he said the school had set anexample with its level of community and parental involvement andthe high standards of its teachers.
"I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Centralabout what makes for a successful school in this new century," hetold some 5,000 people packed into the basketball arena at WesternMichigan University. "It's the key to our future."
"But the most important ingredient is you," Obama said.
"It definitely helps to hear that message, especially from theperson who said it," said graduating senior Zack Heystek, who plansto study graphic design in college. "It was very inspiring. And itwas awesome to meet him. The blood was just flowing and it was justcrazy."
The 1,700-student school in southwest Michigan bested more than1,000 schools and then topped two other finalists picked after thepublic voted on videos and essays they submitted. The White Housemade the final selection and cited Kalamazoo Central's 80percent-plus graduation rate, improvements in academic performanceand a culturally rich curriculum.
"You could have made excuses — our kids have feweradvantages, our schools have fewer resources, so how can wecompete? You could have spent years pointing fingers —blaming parents, blaming teachers, blaming the principal or thesuperintendent or the government," the president said.
"But instead, you came together. You were honest with yourselvesabout where you were falling short. And you resolved to dobetter."
Obama said he didn't always understand that excellence comesthrough perseverance. He talked about his father leaving the familywhen he was 2, being raised by a single mother, acting too casualabout his future and thinking that hard work and responsibilitywere old-fashioned ideas that didn't pertain to him.
"But after a few years, living solely for my own entertainmentwasn't so entertaining anymore and it wasn't particularlysatisfying either," he said. "In refusing to apply myself, I didn'thave much to show for myself, nothing I could point to that I wasproud of."
Education is widely seen as one hope for Michigan'slong-struggling economy. The state has had the nation's highestunemployment rate for four consecutive years, including a 14percent jobless rate in April. Thousands of manufacturing jobs havebeen lost, many connected to the auto industry, and the state istrying to diversify its economy with alternative energy, biomedicaland other jobs — most of which require education beyond highschool.
The White House said more than 170,000 people voted in the Raceto the Top Commencement Challenge competition. Cincinnati's ClarkMontessori Junior High and High School and the Denver School ofScience and Technology were the other finalists.
Tevyn Grayson, who is finishing up his junior year at KalamazooCentral and came to watch friends and cousins graduate, saidObama's appearance sends a powerful message to younger studentsabout the importance of education.
"I know it must be important for the president to come to ourcity to give a commencement speech," said Grayson, 17. "There's alot of pressure to succeed now. Can't be the one to mess itup."
About an hour before the graduates filed into the arena, Obamasurprised them by dropping into the recreation center as they gotready for the biggest day of their lives to date.
Walking around with a hand-held microphone, Obama told thestudents to work hard, keep their eyes on the prize and continue tocarry with them a sense of excellence.
"There is nothing you can't accomplish," he said, adding thatthey should consider public service. "I might be warming up theseat for you."
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