L.A. Teen Wants Barack Obama to Deliver Commencement Address to Seniors Graduating From Home

Lincoln Debenham, a graduating high school senior, is trying to get former resident Barack Obama to deliver a commencement speech for this year's graduates, who will not be able to have in-person ceremonies.

Amber Garrett - Author

Apr. 16 2020, Updated 4:11 p.m. ET

obama commencement speech
Source: getty

While this era of social distancing and stay-at-home orders is full of challenges and disappointments for almost everyone, it feels particularly unfair for the graduating seniors in high schools and universities all over the U.S. Finishing the school year remotely means missing out on many of those cherished rites of passage seniors usually experience — yearbook signing, senior class trips, and the two climax events in virtually every teen comedy: prom and graduation.

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Lincoln Debenham, a graduating senior from Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, is one student grappling with that loss. But the 17-year-old is already something of a budding community organizer, so he turned to the most famous community organizer of his lifetime, Barack Obama, for help.

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Normally, a commencement address from a former president is a huge get for even the most prestigious colleges and universities, but this is anything but a normal graduation season. Lincoln's right: these are unprecedented times. And since in-person graduation ceremonies won't really be possible this year for the class of 2020, Obama has a unique opportunity to give that gift to every graduate, if he chooses to accept it.

Lincoln was inspired to reach out to Obama after he endorsed his running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden, for the 2020 presidential election. "That day I was inspired because I remembered what a great, eloquent speaker President Obama's always been. Then I remembered what he meant to this year's graduates (high school and college). We got to cast our little mock election ballots for him. We got to watch his inauguration from our elementary school classrooms. He was this man who we watched rise to power and be our role model for the bulk of our school years. I figured, who better than him [to give our commencement address]?"

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lincoln debenham
Source: Courtesy Lincoln Debenham

It would be a definite bright spot for many students adjusting to an abrupt change to the way they interact with their peers, and the challenges and disappointments they're shouldering. "Finishing senior year is interesting at home. It's kind of challenging for all of us to actually find motivation to focus and do our work, but we really do try our hardest," Lincoln says. 

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He and his graduating class at Eagle Rock High School recently campaigned successfully to win an all-expenses-paid prom in a giveaway by Hollister, which they were excited about months ago, so the loss of their prom was a particularly painful one. 

One reason the students worked so hard to win the contest was to make the often expensive event accessible to as many students as possible. "The prom giveaway was something that we were all very excited to have won. This made it even harder to face letting that go."

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lincoln debenham julian castro
Source: Courtesy Lincoln Debenham

While they haven't entirely given up hope, there is a lot of uncertainty right now. "Some options for a postponed prom are being floated around, but we never know. It's another thing we were all really looking forward to, especially if it was made affordable, which it was by the contest."

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So far, Lincoln hasn't heard from Obama, though his communications director Katie Hill says he's "very flattered" by the request. However, the public demand for a speech is definitely significant and growing. Lincoln's tweet has garnered nearly 200K likes as of this writing and over 38K retweets, including by celebrities like Busy Philipps and Rosie O'Donnell.

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While many in support of #ObamaCommencement2020 like the idea because it would "stick it to" the current president, Lincoln says that definitely isn't his motivation and not at all why he hopes Obama agrees to the proposal. 

"I just want to make it clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with the current president. It is about, again, the role model figure, the man we all watched rise and looked up to as kids hopefully coming back to speak words which uplift students graduating to the next levels of life or education in a now very uncertain world," he says. "I think it would help a lot and inspire the youth who are now stepping up to the plate of national and world leadership."

And Lincoln definitely takes leadership and civic duty seriously. He will cast his first presidential vote this year, but even before becoming eligible to vote, he and his older brother Eli, a college junior, became engaged politically at a young age. Next year, he hopes to be able to attend college. Though he's not committed yet to where he will go, he is looking at Cal State Los Angeles among other schools. "I’d also love to work in some form, securely and safely."

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