President Barack Obama urged the graduating class of Ohio State University to take an active role in guiding the future of democracy in the United States and to fight for the issues the new graduates care about.
"There's a word for this," he said.
"It's citizenship. Sometimes we see it as a virtue from another time."
He said he was asking of them what President George W Bush did when he addressed OSU graduates in 2002, and quoted the former president: "'America needs more than taxpayers, spectators and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.'"
In the first of three commencement addresses he will give this month, Obama called on the more than 10,000 graduates to do two things: Participate and persevere.
He said they should participate in the democratic process, which he was quick to note "isn't working as well as we know it can," particularly in Washington.
"Those of us fortunate enough to serve in these institutions owe it to you to do better, every single day," he said.
He implored the graduates to work hard to change the country, which has seen its share of turmoil recently, including the Boston Marathon bombings, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion.
"You have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we'd see when we sat where you sit," Obama said.
"And yet, despite all this, or perhaps because of it, yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas - that people who love their country can change it."
The president was optimistic, telling graduates and the 57,000 others who filled Ohio Stadium that the country is on the road to economic recovery.
The auto industry is headed toward its strongest performance in two decades and advances have been made in domestic energy and information and technology, he said.
"You are graduating into an economy and job market that are steadily healing," Obama said.
He cautioned them, though, to remember that: "If there is one certainty about the decade ahead, it's that things will be uncertain."
"Change will be a constant, just as it has been throughout our history," he said.
Senior Shelby Lum of Atlanta said that Obama's message resonated with the crowd.
"Citizenship is a sentiment that everyone can relate to," she said.
"And people are going to listen more closely because he's the president."
Obama's 25-minute address shied away from foreign policy, immigration and gun control - issues that his administration has been grappling with for months.
Sunday's visit was Obama's fifth to the campus since March 2012, according to university spokeswoman Amy Murray. He won the battleground state in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Obama is the third sitting president to deliver the commencement address at OSU, Murray said.
Bush spoke in the spring of 2002 and Gerald R Ford - raised in neighbouring Michigan - addressed the graduates in 1974.
George HW Bush spoke to graduates when he was vice president, and Bill Clinton addressed them in 2007, after he had left office.
Obama received an honourary law degree from the university and donned an Ohio State baseball cap with his gown to the delight of the graduates, the second-largest class in the university's history. The class included 130 military veterans.
The president is scheduled to speak later this month to graduates at Morehouse College, the all-male historically black school in Atlanta, and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
- WASHINGTON POST/ BLOOMBERG