DOVER — The current generation of young adults graduating college and entering the workforce faces some of the biggest challenges any generation has ever confronted, but its members are also more prepared than anyone before, Vice President Joe Biden told the thousands of people gathered at Delaware State University Saturday for the annual commencement ceremony.
“No class gets to choose the world into which they graduate,” he said. “Each and every class enters into the history that was written by others for them. But once every several generations, a graduating class enters at a point in our history where we can actually change the trajectory of the nation.”
Making what is believed to be the first visit by a sitting vice president to Delaware State, Vice President Biden offered congratulations, reflected on his 40-plus years in public service and cracked a few jokes during his 35-minute speech.
Approximately 8,200 people gathered Saturday morning in Alumni Stadium to celebrate the 700 graduates receiving degrees from the university. It was an overcast morning, but the rain held off, and although the ceremony started later than planned, the atmosphere was one of celebration.
Vice President Biden praised the new graduates and urged them to “build real relationships even with people with whom you vehemently disagree.”
“Those who had the most success were the most respected and therefore got the most done. They were the ones who never confused academic credentials and social standing or sophistication with gravitas or judgment,” he said. “Remember the neighborhood you came from. Remember those who didn’t have your chance.”
Wearing a black doctoral gown with a white hood and no cap, he recalled one of the biggest moments of his life: The 1972 car crash that killed his wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, just weeks after he was elected to the Senate.
With emotion in his voice, he stressed the value of family and told graduates to find balance in their lives.
Vice President Biden also alluded to the death of his oldest son in May 2015 of brain cancer, an event that led last year to an outpouring of grief and sympathy from both Delaware and the nation at large.
“My late son, Beau Biden, cared a great deal about Delaware State,” he said. “Spent a lot of time here when he was attorney general, and I am honored to be back where one of the last places he spoke.”
The vice president was introduced by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, who served with him for eight years in the Senate.
Just two weeks after he led the crowd at a political rally in a sing-along, Sen. Carper had the audience chanting “Joe-bama.”
“Barack Obama was going nowhere until he asked Joe-bama to join him,” he said.
The senator also tossed some criticism at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who has spoken of creating a large wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, by praising Vice President Biden as someone who “believes that leaders should be building bridges to unite people, not building walls to divide them.”
He and Vice President Biden provided a pat on the back for one another, complimenting each other on helping the university grow.
The vice president, who spoke at Delaware State’s graduation in 2003, received a warm welcome from the crowd.
The only reason he became vice president, he told the audience, was because dozens of DSU students and professors volunteered on his initial Senate campaign in 1972. Without that, he said, he would not have been elected to the Senate then and would not be speaking at the ceremony as the second-highest elected leader in the nation.
His address came the same day as President Obama visited fellow historically black college Howard University.
“‘I’m going to one of the greatest HB(C)Us in the United States of America,” the vice president said, recalling a conversation he had with the president. “I knew where he was going. He said, ‘I’m going to Howard.’ I said,’ Too bad. You’re not going to DelState. That’s where I’m going!’
A joke that the “next round at Bubba’s or McGlynn’s” is on President Obama drew laughs and cheers.
Though the speech included some humor, there were plenty of serious and even solemn moments.
Threats like terrorism and climate change, as well as more nebulous issues like racial and class divides cloud the future, Vice President Biden told the audience.
“Everything is in motion,” he said. “We have the power, you have the power, your generation, to bend history just a little bit. Some generations never had that chance.”
The vice president ended on a positive note, receiving a standing ovation for his final remark: “You entered to learn and now you have to go and serve, it’s our obligation.”