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Obama Urges Women to 'Lead the Way' at Barnard Commencement Speech

By Jill Colvin | May 14, 2012 12:50pm | Updated on May 14, 2012 10:26pm
President Barack Obama delivered Barnard College's 2012 commencement address on Mon., March 14th, 2012.
President Barack Obama delivered Barnard College's 2012 commencement address on Mon., March 14th, 2012.
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Barnard College/Asiya Khaki

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — President Barack Obama urged young women to take the reigns and fight for change during an inspiring commencement address to Barnard College's graduating class Monday.

Students could barely contain their excitement as they waited for the president's return to Columbia University’s Ivy League campus, bursting into deafening cheers of 'Yes we can!' as the president took to the stage and applauding loudly throughout his speech.

Dressed in full academic regalia, Obama called on the women to serve as leaders, arguing that achieving real change rests in their hands.

"I'm convinced that your generation possesses that will. And I believe that the women of this generation, that all of you, will help lead the way," he said, pointing to the powerful women who shaped his own life, including the single mother and grandmother who raised him.

“I’m only here because of them," he told the nearly 600 members of the class of 2012 and their beaming families, who began lining up to fill the white tents across the Columbia campus under a foreboding sky at 6 a.m.

Obama also spoke about the challenges women face balancing careers and families, and urged women "to ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion, and focus instead on studying and inventing and competing and leading."

But he immediately reeled himself back.

"Now, Michelle will say, nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit," he said, referencing his ever-fashionable wife. "You can be stylish and powerful, too. That's Michelle’s advice."

Obama, who graduated from Columbia College in 1983, also talked about how much Morningside Heights had changed since his days as an undergrad.

"Some of the streets around here were not quite so inviting. Times Square was not a family destination," he said, adding that, back then, "Music was all about Michael and the moonwalk."

The reference drew a round of "Do it!"s from the crowd.

But Obama, laughing, resisted what would surely have been a number one YouTube hit.

"No moonwalking. No moonwalking today," he said through cheers.

To accommodate the president's visit, security at the ceremony was tight, with all guests passing through metal detectors. Grads had to report to school at 8 a.m. to pass through airport-style screening, and umbrellas and liquids were banned because of the potential security risk, they said.

Nonetheless, students were overjoyed to have the opportunity to hear Obama speak.

"It was incredible. I have chills," gushed new grad Jane Handel, 22, an English and creative writing major, who said that she felt empowered by Obama's message about the impact women have made on the country and his life.

"It was such an honor," she said of the visit. "To have the President of the United States backing women and understanding how strong we are, it's really inspiring," she said.

Grad Aliza Stein, 22, who is originally from Obama's native Chicago, was also floored by the superstar send-off.

"I'm really overwhelmed, to be this close to the President of the United States," she Stein, who said she has landed a post-grad gig at the White House in Washington, D.C.

"It's like this all the time there!" she gushed.

The experience was also thrilling for the hundreds of parents who gathered to watch their daughters graduate.

“It’s wonderful. We are ecstatic. This is like, ‘the one,'” said New Jersey’s Sylvia Wilson, 45, who arrived at 6 a.m. to watch her daughter, Britney — and Obama — take to the stage.

Mom Madeline D'Aversa admitted that students had had to deal with “lots of security issues” because of the president’s visit, but said it was worth it for grads, including her daughter, who was president of the class of 2012.

“I think that they’re honored because he’s coming to Barnard and they realize it’s very important to the school,” she said.

Obama asked to speak at the women's college following the controversy over Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law Student who was called a "prostitute" and a "slut" by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh after she argued that university health plans should cover contraception.

But the president's request caused some controversy of its own, after it forced Columbia's School of General Studies, another undergraduate college, to push its ceremony back a day to accommodate security set-up, putting a last-minute wrench in many families' travel plans.

The decision to speak also exacerbated tensions between students at Barnard and Columbia College, the university's main undergraduate college and Obama's Alma mater, who have long enjoyed what Obama euphemistically called a "sibling rivalry."

"There was a lot of very vicious, misogynistic reactions when they heard he was coming [to Barnard and not Columbia College]," Handel said, stressing her opinion that Obama's decision to speak at any of Columbia's schools was an honor for the whole university.

The speech was also the president's first in New York since he came out in support of gay marriage publicly last week, drawing praise from officials across the city, who celebrated the moment as a victory for civil rights.

While the president steered mostly clear of the topic during the address, it was front and center later in the afternoon, after Obama left the campus for a pair of star-studded fundraisers, tying up traffic across Manhattan's east and west sides.

After sitting down with the women of the talk show, "The View,"  for an episode set to air Tuesday, Obama headed to a lavish bash co-hosted by openly gay pop singer-turned Broadway Star Ricky Martin and the LGBT Leadership Council at Chelsea’s Rubin Museum of Art.

"We admire his courage, like the courage he showed last week in affirming his belief in marriage equality," Martin told the 200 guests, including actress Eva Longoria, who paid at least $5,000 to attend, an Obama campaign official said.

The president then headed to the Upper East Side, to the Park Avenue home of Hamilton “Tony” James, president and COO of Blackstone Group, the private equity firm, where 60 supporters shelled out $35,800 each to hear the president speak.

Obama has become a regular fixture of New York's fundraising circuit as he ramps up his 2012 election campaign.

With pool reports