HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — The last time Camille and Jason Hammond saw President Barack Obama it was on a JumboTron as they shivered in the cold along with hosts of others at his inauguration. It was cold again on Sunday, but this time they didn’t have to rely on a TV, as Obama gave the commencement address at Hampton University.
The Hammonds, their triplets and other relatives were seated on the Hampton football field as the president spoke on a stage in the one of the end zones on a breezy, 59-degree day at the historically black college where Jason Hammond’s mother Pamela is provost.
“He could have been anywhere, at other universities that have a larger national spotlight, but he chose Hampton University,” Camille Hammond said. “We already knew it was a special place, but it’s good that the president also realizes it’s a special, unique, wonderful university.”
Obama is the 10th president to visit the private university of about 6,000 students, founded in 1868 near the site where a free Virginian taught classes to escaped slaves against state law. It was Obama’s second commencement address this season, and his first as president at a historically black college.
Obama said many Americans do not have access to education, and the nation must ensure that they get it.
“All of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change this, to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy. That is our obligation as a nation,” the president said.
University officials presented Obama with a seedling from the Emancipation Oak, under which escaped slaves once were taught and where President Abraham Lincoln later came to read the Emancipation Proclamation.
Tiffany Tompkins was one of nearly 1,100 graduates to walk in the ceremony, held a day after she was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She found it meaningful to have her new boss, the commander in chief, as her graduation speaker.
“I think it says a lot about the direction in which our nation is headed and the things that can be accomplished as long as people keep their faith and keep hope alive, keep pressing forward,” said Tompkins, 22, of Fort Lewis, Wash., before entering Armstrong Stadium.
Elizabeth Rich, a 21-year-old business management major from Philadelphia, was honored the president was there, but said the extra security and limited tickets were distracting.
Lines formed around 5 a.m. outside the stadium. The event was only open to graduates and 15,000 other ticket-holders.
Javon Daffeh, who was in town for her 10-year reunion, got up at 4:15 a.m. and caught one of about a dozen 5:30 a.m. shuttle buses to the stadium. It was worth it: She got a front row seat on the field.
She can’t remember the name of the speaker when she graduated in 2000.
“It’s very historic to have not only the president of the United States, but also the first African American president to come here and speak at our university,” said Daffeh, of Studio City, Calif.
Pedro Garcia came to watch his daughter, biology major Evelyn Sage Belinda Garcia, graduate. He said she didn’t plan to walk in the ceremony until she found out Obama would be there.
“It’s something that you’ll hold in your memory banks forever,” he said.