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Obama pushes kids to work hard in back-to-school speech

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The president urges students to make the most of their education
  • Obama announces a second "commencement challenge" for high school graduates
  • Obama travels to Philadelphia for his second back-to-school speech
  • Last year, conservatives worried Obama would push a political agenda

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama Tuesday delivered his second back-to-school message to the nation's students -- an event marked by far less controversy than the first time around.

The speech -- delivered to a thunderous round of applause from students at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- encouraged students to make the most of their educational opportunities.

"Nobody gets to write your destiny but you," Obama said.

"Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is beyond your reach, so long as you're willing to dream big, so long as you're willing to work hard, so long as you're willing to stay focused on your education -- there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish."

The president said education "never has been more important."

"I'm sure there are going to be times in the months ahead when you're staying up late doing your homework or cramming for a test, or you're dragging yourself out of bed on a rainy morning and you're thinking, oh boy, I wish maybe it was a snow day," he said. "Let me tell you, what you're doing is worth it. ... Nothing is going to have as great an impact on your success in life as your education."

Last year, his first as president, Obama's plan to deliver a similar message prompted an unexpected backlash from conservatives who worried he would push students to support his political agenda. However, the speech Obama delivered at a Virginia school included no political references and was welcomed by conservatives.

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This year's speech also focused on urging students to work hard in order to achieve their goals.

"More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you are going to be determined by how far you go in school," Obama said. "The farther you go in school, the farther you're going to go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before ... your success in school is going to determine America's success in the 21st century."

He called on students to meet their responsibilities for school by showing up on time, paying attention in class, doing their homework, studying for exams and staying out of trouble.

"I wasn't always the best student when I was younger. I made my share of mistakes," Obama said, going on to describe a scolding from his mother about the need for more effort.

"It was pretty jolting, hearing my mother say that," the president said. "But eventually, her words had their intended effect, because I got serious about my studies. I started to make an effort in everything I did. And I began to see my grades -- and my prospects -- improve. And I know that if hard work could make the difference for me, then it can make a difference for all of you."

He also urged students to take on new challenges, with specific encouragement to rebound from disappointment and failure to try again.

"So, what I want to say to every kid ... [is] that life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity," the president said.

"We shouldn't be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them. Because it's the things that make us different that make us who we are."

Obama also announced a second "commencement challenge," where a high school making positive changes and advancements is selected by the White House to have the president deliver its graduation speech. Obama addressed graduates from a high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2009.

Some of the controversy surrounding the president's education address last year involved a proposed lesson plan created by the Education Department to accompany the speech. An initial version of the plan recommended that students draft letters to themselves discussing "what they can do to help the president."

The letters "would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals," the plan stated.

After the criticism from conservatives, the White House distributed a revised version encouraging students to write letters about how they can "achieve their short-term and long-term education goals."