Five years after the campus shootings that killed 32 and wounded 17, First Lady Michelle Obama urged graduating students at Virginia Tech not to let the 2007 violence define their school.
"There will always be folks who judge you based on things that you say or do; folks who define you based on one isolated incident," she told tens of thousands of Hokie graduates at Lane Stadium. "And here at Virginia Tech, I know you all know a thing or two about what that's like. But you also know that, in the end, people can only define you if you let them."
She urged them to stand up for the school's academic and community successes when outsiders focus only on recollections of the tragedy. The graduates in the four-year bachelor's degree program were in the first freshman class to attend the school after the shootings.
The massacre by 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho -- who committed suicide after the rampage -- prompted a national conversation about gun laws and mental health.
The first lady said that students should "tune out" those who judge them or their school based on others' perceptions or "superficial things," a struggle that she acknowledged experiencing when she was a high-school student dreaming of an Ivy League education.
"Some of you may have grown up like I did, in neighborhoods where kids, very few of them, had their chance to go to college," she recalled, "where being teased for doing well in school was just a fact of life, where well-meaning but misguided folks questioned whether a girl with my background could get into the kids of colleges I dreamed of attending."
"But I worked hard, and I did my best to tune out those voices of doubt, including those in my own head," she said.
In swing-state Virginia, Mrs. Obama was received warmly by students and their parents, with no notable outbursts or protests. (A smattering of students, however, did not participate in a standing ovation for her before and after her remarks.)
Amid ongoing congressional debate about student-interest loan rates, Mrs. Obama noted that her ailing father proudly paid a "small portion" of her Princeton University tuition, which was otherwise covered by "loans and grants."
"He was so proud to be sending his kids to college," she said. "And he couldn't bear the thought of me or my brother missing that registration deadline because his check was late."
Her main message, in keeping with her various volunteer and community building-oriented projects as First Lady, was one of healing through service.
After her father died, she said, she struggled with "emptiness" until she left her prestigious job at a law firm in favor of a more service-oriented job assisting students.
"Yeah, I took a pay cut, that made my mother cringe," she said. "And my new office wans't nearly as nice as the old one, but with every student I mentored, with every service project I organized, I felt my grief recede just a little bit."
Mrs. Obama was introduced by Virginia Democrat Sen. Mark Warner, who joked that he would take on the First Lady in a sack race - a reference to her "Let's Move" fitness initiative.
"Senator, I accept your challenge," she said to laughter from the audience as she began her remarks. "But you just gotta know, I play to win