UC Merced

James Burns: UC Merced Bobcats of '09 a special class: Bright people with bright ideas

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

"They are the ones the world needs."

-- Steve Kang, UC Merced chancellor, on the class of 2009

The year is 2024, and innovation, new technology and break-throughs of every size and scale blossom.

The new world is nothing like the Jetsons -- no flying cars, robotic maids or kids named Elroy -- but it's full of bright ideas powered by bright human beings.

Like Ivan Noe.

You'll find the chatty neuro scientist entrenched in Silicon Valley, the Land of Computer Chips, researching a mainframe of a different sort.

Noe studies the mind -- a fascination he developed in high school and honed as a cognitive science major at UC Merced. In recent years, he's narrowed his scope.

The LA transplant wants to crack Balint's Syndrome -- a visual disorder similar to tunnel vision, but worse.

Those that suffer from Balint's struggle to integrate complex visual scenes. "There's got to be a way to form the connection," he says, certain 2024 will be a year of discovery.

Katie Heaton's career has come full circle in the year 2024.

The UC Merced history professor followed her major and is one of the state's leading advocates for higher education, reaching out to high school students not unlike herself many moons ago.

"There's power in learning and knowing," Heaton says. "The university was put in the Valley to help raise educational levels."

Allisa Clemens, who majored in biochemistry at UC Merced and is now a biochemist with Locke-Martin in Sunnyvale, tests new materials that will be used on satellites and missiles.

"Never a boring project," she says in her lab coat.

Still, no matter how busy their lives might be, the three will take a moment each May to reflect and marvel at the day their lives were released into the wild like a flock of doves.

The genesis.

It was May 16, 2009, graduation day.

Noe and Heaton and Clemens were cooking under cap and gown in the "The Bowl" at UC Merced -- the smallest campus in the UC system and the country's newest research university at the time.

Back then, their 2009 class -- the first four-year graduates in school history -- was tied tightly together, woven like strands of rope.

In fact, their bonds were so taut it would have taken all 12,000-plus people in attendance that day to unravel them.

These first-generation Bobcats poured the foundation for an athletic program, founded Greek communities and clubs, started a student newspaper and published books like "The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles."

They shared cups of coffee, lab space, library hours and dorm rooms.

Four years into their adventure, the campus had become a small-sample size of their dreams: A petri dish teeming with future scientists, doctors, professors and engineers.

"We are a family," Heaton said.

Such was the small-school lifestyle.

You knew everyone, by name or by appearance. And more often than not, you had a keen, intimate sense of where each student had been and where they were going.

Rare was an unfamiliar face. Rare was an awkward encounter.

That afternoon, back in 2009, they were inspired to reach, to open new doors, to turn away from the light and brave the dark.

Standard fare for any graduation ceremony.

Only their keynote speaker was anything but -- first lady Michelle Obama, a perfect reflection of the university, the city of Merced and the region.

Remember her?

The graduates were confident in their education, their focus galvanized by a bet-I-can spirit.

Many of them already had one foot through the door to their futures. But they needed one final push. A nudge.

The first lady, a perfect package of grace and beauty, fire and conviction, was happy to oblige.

"You, the students, the graduates and faculty on this campus -- you're capable of changing the world, that's for sure," Obama said that day.

"We need your ideas, graduates. We need your resourcefulness. We need your inventiveness.

"Dream big. Think broadly about your life. ... Take that same hope and optimism, the hard work and tenacity that brought you to this point, and carry it with you the rest of your life," she later added.

"As you step out into the big, open world, the truth is you will face tough times. You'll certainly have doubts. ... There will be days when you will worry if you're really up to the challenge.

"But in those moments, those inevitable moments, I urge you to think about this day."

Remember: the year is 2024 -- 15 years after the first lady's maiden commencement engagement on the tiny campus of UC Merced.

Obama still speaks to new graduates each spring. She's older now, obviously, with a tinge of gray, but she still looks as if she could bench press Barack.

And with every new year, every new engagement, just before she releases a new flock of doves into the wild, she pauses.

Not to soak up the applause or the moment. Not to pose for the shutterbugs in the photo pit or to add spice to a reporter's story.

But to remember her first set of doves. The Ivans, the Katies and Allisas -- UC Merced's original cast.

They flapped their wings in the face of global recession, environmental disaster, political unrest, war and revolution.

They applied their knowledge, invested their faith and challenged the status quo with every new step.

Ultimately, Obama will challenge each set of new graduates to be like those Bobcats of 2009.

A special class ... full of bright people with bright ideas and even brighter futures.

The ones the world needed.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.