When word went out this spring that President Barack Obama had accepted the university’s invitation—culminating a three-year courtship—to be the commencement speaker for the 250th Anniversary Commencement, students, alumni, faculty, and staff members had a few brief weeks to try to let it all sink in. Barack Obama is coming? Really?

And just before noon on May 15, as three MV-22 Osprey helicopters thundered past High Point Solutions Stadium flying low in the sky as they escorted Marine One carrying the president, it hit home: Obama was here. This was going to happen.

Inside the stadium, a tsunami of cheers broke over the audience of 50,000, many having arrived as early as 8 a.m. The pageantry of the day was now in full roar. When President Obama stepped to the presidential  lectern after receiving an honorary degree (as did S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell  and Bill Moyers) from Rutgers president Robert Barchi, who himself could barely contain his glee, Obama brought down the house: “Hello, Rutgers!  RU, rah-rah!”

Rutgers 250th Anniversary Commencement


At the outset of his 45-minute address, President Barack Obama, top, revealed that he was persuaded to give the 250th Anniversary Commencement Address because of the university’s sustained three-year effort. Middle, an estimated 50,000 people, some arriving as early as 8 a.m., attended the May 15 event at High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Lower left, students from the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine wave their BamFlags, reacting to one of the many applause lines in the speech. Right, the commemorative zipper pull adorning graduates’ gowns was designed by Alexia Merlo, who graduated from the Mason Gross School of the Arts in May. Lower right, one of the many students expressing their gratitude to their parents.

Photography by Nick Romanenko, Roy Groething, Jody Somers

And for the next 45 minutes, the crowd was his—12,000 students seated on the stadium floor, with family members cheering them on from the stands. Leavening his remarks with his deadpan brand of humor, Obama made knowing references to Rutgers University–New Brunswick, acknowledging icons such as the Grease Trucks, the far-flung bus system, the first collegiate football game, and the founding of Queen’s College. “So, I’m here,” he said, dressed in a scarlet Rutgers gown, “off Exit 9, on the banks of the old Raritan.” It was still hard to believe.

“America converges here,” he went on to say, acknowledging the diversity of Rutgers. “And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America—the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation.”

But the university’s and nation’s achievements were no accident, he pointed out. Progress is hard work, a matter of fits and starts. Change is inevitable—and accelerating. He counseled patience as the graduates make their way in the world, acknowledging that today’s students are better educated and better  prepared to encounter the world, one that is more interconnected than ever.

And it will take graduates’ engagement “to change the world,” he said, from civic mindedness to simply voting. “Have faith in democracy,” he said. “Look, I know it’s not always pretty. Really, I know. I’ve been living it.” As frustrating as the process can be at times, welcome debate, challenge yourself and others, and, the president said, be willing to consider opposing points of view, which may even alter your own. You’ll be better for the exercise.

“Is it any wonder that I am optimistic?” the president asked the crowd as he concluded his address. “Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans has reached up and bent the arc of history in the direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and more justice. And, Class of 2016, it is your turn now to shape the nation’s destiny as well as your own. So get to work. Make sure the next 250 years are better than the last.”

To read a transcript of President Obama’s speech at the 250th Anniversary Commencement or to view a video of the president giving his address or the photo gallery, visit commencement.rutgers.edu.