UC Merced

First Lady Michelle Obama to UC Merced graduates: 'Dream big'


That's all she could say.

When first lady Michelle Obama took the stage at UC Merced's Class of 2009 commencement ceremony, the second action she took was to ask the crowd to applaud the 511 graduating students sitting in front of her.

"I am just so proud of these graduates," Obama said. "And to the graduates and their families and the entire community of Merced, I am so pleased, so thrilled, so honored to be here with all of you today."

Obama's 17-minute message focused on innovation, service to others and perseverance.

Striking a chord similar to that President Barack Obama hit during his commencement address at Arizona State University last Thursday, Mrs. Obama reminded students of crucial social innovations by young people: Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as an undergraduate;

"Green for All," an organization dedicated to a clean energy economy, founded by Van Jones, now special adviser to the Obama White House; and the Harlem Space for Kids, created by Geoffrey Canada.

"You too can have the same transformative effect on the city of Merced and this entire nation," Obama said. "Make your legacy a lasting one. Dream big."

The band of students being honored Saturday started their higher education careers at UC Merced on Sept. 5, 2005.

In the four years since, campus enrollment has tripled from 875 in 2005 to 2,718 this year. The number of graduating students soared to 517 (six didn't attend the ceremony) on Saturday from three in 2006.

The pioneering graduates have created a student government, founded clubs, organized sporting events and conducted groundbreaking research.

They will go on from UC Merced to law school and medical school and the Peace Corps.

"We put forth our best effort to embrace the multiple opportunities at UC Merced and turn our dreams into reality," student speaker Jason Castillo said. "Although others considered attending a new campus to be a risk, our class proved them wrong by flourishing at this newest UC."

It was that tenacity that drew Obama to speak at Merced.

"You inspired me, you touched me," Obama said. "You know, there are few things that are more rewarding than to watch young people recognize that they have the power to make their dreams come true. And you did just that."

Graduate Megan Machado said she enjoyed the first lady's remarks about enduring hard times. "You will face tough times, you will certainly have doubts And you will definitely have your share of setbacks. Count on it," Obama said. "But in those moments, those inevitable moments, I urge you to think about this day."

Machado graduated with a bachelor's of science degree in biological sciences and is taking a year off before pursuing a master's degree in business administration.

"It just really described how I was feeling," Machado said. "She made me motivated to set out for my dreams again."

Her friend, Cybill Navarro, 22, agreed.

"I couldn't have asked for more," she said.

Navarro and Machado – who both worked on the "Dear Michelle" campaign that persuaded her to come here – said the ceremony was like a dream.

"We knew the crowd was there, but I didn't think I would feel so overwhelmed when we entered," Machado said.

"I couldn't have asked for anything more," Navarro added. The two women were part of a small group of students who met with Obama in the campus library before the commencement ceremony.

David Do was also there.

"She walked in, really confident," Do said. "And she just hugged each and every one of us. I was just in awe. I didn't know what to do."

Do said Obama's message about giving back to the Merced community carried the most importance to him.

"I would encourage you to call upon the same hope and hard work that brought you to this day," Obama said. "Call upon that optimism and tenacity that built the University of California at Merced to invest in the future of Merced in your own home towns all across this country."

Do said those comments cemented his desire to stay in Merced after graduation and get a job here. He hopes to attend law school and go into prosecution someday. Obama's speech was peppered with resounding applause from the estimated crowd of 12,000, despite sweltering temperatures and a harsh afternoon sun. Temperatures in Merced neared 100 degrees and felt even warmer on the ground of the bowl where the ceremony was held.

Only the first serrated ridges of the Sierra Nevada in the distance poked through the dense, warm haze.

Chancellor Steve Kang announced during the ceremony that the university had dedicated space on campus in Obama's honor.

The university finished construction this month of a new early childhood education center. It's located near the entrance of campus "as an expression of the high value we place on preschool, the critical beginning to a lifetime of learning," Kang said.

"We are pleased to announce that today we name the center's garden as ‘Michelle Obama's Garden for Young Children' in honor of the first lady's visit," he continued.

Obama was also presented with the Chancellor's Medallion of Honor.

The medallion was given to Obama, but it represented a high point for the young campus. Many have said that the ceremony set an impossible standard for next year's graduating class.

Obama acknowleged the precedent: "Next year's graduation speaker better watch out," she said. "Because UC Merced students know how to get what they want."

As they did this year.Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.