At City College Graduation, Michelle Obama Calls Diversity a ‘Resource to Be Tapped’

Michelle Obama on Friday used her final commencement address as first lady to extend veiled jabs at Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, speaking to graduates of the City College of New York about the importance of diversity and warning of those who “build up walls to keep people out.”

“They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped,” Mrs. Obama said to an audience that needed no explanation of who “they” were. “They tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree. They act as if name calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate. As if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress.”

Even though the first lady did not mention Mr. Trump by name, her scathing reference appeared to be aimed at the candidate, whose harsh speech about Muslims and immigrants has fed nationwide outrage and concerns, even among Republican Party leaders. Last June, when he launched his presidential bid, Mr. Trump said that Mexico was sending “rapists” and other criminals into the United States and said that he would force the Mexican government to pay for a wall along the border. At campaign stops, he also called for a temporary ban on Muslims immigrants and visitors.

Mrs. Obama later made reference to countries she visited as first lady, saying she had “seen what happened when ideas like these take hold. I have seen how leaders rule by intimidation. Leaders who demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people often do so because they have nothing else to offer. Graduates, that is not who we are. That is not what this country stands for.”

In her address to a highly diverse class of more than 3,000 students, Mrs. Obama also invoked the names of historical landmark, and products and structures that were designed and created by immigrants, including Google, eBay, the artificial heart, the Brooklyn Bridge and the White House.

The First Lady told graduates to embrace the future and the profound changes and challenges that lie before them as they enter the world of work. She said she chose to give her final commencement address as first lady at the Harlem-based school because of its mission as a public institution serving low-income people and the middle class. Mrs. Obama said the city has always been a gateway for immigrants who have moved from their homelands to achieve the American dream.

Members of the City College of New York's graduating class at commencement on Friday. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute

City College of New York, the flagship school of the City University of New York system, has long prided itself on educating immigrants and a diverse student body. The school was created in 1847 as the Free Academy of the City of New York to provide children of immigrants and the poor access to free education. It has been often referred to as “the poor man’s Harvard.” The school was tuition-free until 1976, and it has produced 10 Nobel Prize winners.

On Friday, the college’s president, Lisa S. Coico, presented the first lady with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. She lauded Mrs. Obama for her Let Girls Learn and Reach Higher education initiatives to provide disadvantaged youths in the United States and developing countries with access to education.

Minutes before her address, Mrs. Obama listened to the speech of the college’s salutatorian, Orubba Almansouri, a Yemeni immigrant who came to the United States to pursue a college education despite disapproval from her family.

“They wanted me to go to the university of the kitchen,” she said. “But I fought to be allowed to pursue an education, for the right to be here today.”

Mrs. Obama said ​stories like ​those of Ms. Almansouri and other students are a “living, breathing proof that the American dream endures in our time – it is you.”

“It’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves,” Mrs. Obama said, “and I watch my daughters, two beautiful black young women head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to America for the same reasons as many of you: to get an education and improve his prospects in life.”