President Joe Biden will give the commencement address at the Air Force Academy’s graduation Thursday, marking the 12th time a president has spoken at an academy graduation.
In total, eight presidents have addressed 11 graduating classes from the academy prior to Biden’s upcoming address in Colorado Springs. Biden delivered the academy’s commencement address as vice president in 2009 and 2014.
Cadets attend the Air Force Academy for four years and upon graduation receive a bachelor’s degree and are eligible to enter careers with either the Air Force or Space Force.
Manmeet Pelia grew up in a military family, moving around the country throughout her entire childhood as her father was an enlisted airman. She said she always knew she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, and she will be the first woman in her family to serve in the military.
As she is set to graduate from the Air Force Academy this week, Pelia’s preparing to continue her education at Georgia Tech, where she’ll study aerospace engineering before going to pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
“I’m excited to be learning the things that I’m excited to learn about and dive deep into the things I’ve studied here at USAFA,” Pelia said. “And then, being able to then do what I feel like is my true calling and be able to serve amongst the community that is so tight knit is a really exciting opportunity.”
The last four years at the academy have been filled with more hard work and dedication than Pelia said she’s ever experienced, but she said making it to the finish line has shown her she can face whatever challenges will come her way.
Pelia said it “means the world” to her and her fellow cadets that the country’s commander in chief will speak at their graduation.
“For my fellow cadets who are first generation immigrants, to think that your parents can come from anywhere and then, there you are shaking the hand of the president,” Pelia said. “It’s just absolutely amazing. That can really only happen in a country like the United States.”
President John F. Kennedy, addressing the academy’s fifth graduating class in June 1963, was the first president to speak at an Air Force Academy graduation. Other presidents who appeared at the event include Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
John Cook will also continue his studies after graduating on Thursday, progressing in his work with systems engineering at the University of Florida before also going to flight training at Vance Air Force Base. He grew up close to Tinker Air Force Base, which is also in Oklahoma, and he heard planes flying over his head every day as a kid, he said.
Both Cook and Pelia noted that starting their careers at the Air Force Academy during the height of the COVID pandemic helped the cadets learn to support each other, leading to some of the closest camaraderie they’ve ever experienced.
Graduating so close to Memorial Day means a lot to Cook as he recently lost a friend at the academy, calling it “a time of remembrance and celebration.”
“The long blue line transcends the academy and connects us with all the past graduates and future graduates of the academy,” Cook said. “I think it’s a time to take a step back and reflect on what we all signed up to do and what our mission is and what we’re what we’re serving for, and that’s the American people. That’s our way of life, and I am beyond proud to be a part of that.”
Lt. Col. Bob Umholtz teaches history at the academy and is the 2023 graduation lead, working over the past several months to prepare for the many celebratory events for the ceremony. He and the various teams working out the logistics of commencement have been meeting regularly over the past six months to finalize every detail.
One of the academy’s traditions for graduating cadets is to jump into the fountain at the USAFA Air Gardens after they finish their last final, according to Umholtz. He said some of the cadets in his history class asked him to jump with them this year.
The week leading up to graduation includes various ceremonies and award receptions recognizing the achievements of the class of 2023 ahead of its commencement.
The culminating moment at commencement, Umholtz said, is when the commandant dismisses the graduates, the Thunderbirds fly overhead, and the graduating cadets toss their hats into the air.
“That is what this whole thing is about — watching the hats fly and the Thunderbirds, and then people can get their pictures, families can see their children,” Umholtz said. “They are officially, in that moment, officers in the Air or Space Force.”
The academy has also had several vice presidents other than Biden address cadets at graduation, most recently Vice President Mike Pence in 2020. That was the 12th time a vice president has delivered the commencement address.
The first vice president to speak at an academy graduation was Lyndon Johnson in 1962, followed by Spiro Agnew in 1971, Gerald Ford in 1974, Nelson Rockefeller in 1976, George H. W. Bush in 1982 and 1986, Dan Quayle in 1992 and Dick Cheney in 2001 and 2005.