UC Merced

Those who couldn't get in to see Obama partied, too

First lady Michelle Obama's call for UC Merced's graduates to give back to their community echoed off the walls of downtown Merced -- a city that represents just about all of America's woes.

"And with jobs scarce, many of you may be considering leaving town with your diploma in hand. And it wouldn't be unreasonable," Obama said during her speech, which was broadcast on a JumboTron at Main and Canal streets.

She explained that the graduates must tap the same hope and optimism that brought them to graduation.

Obama referenced Merced's high unemployment rate and foreclosure problem as reasons that students may be quick to hit Highway 99. But it's vital that they stay or head to areas most in need of help.

"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," she said.

The message of small-town investment resonated with city officials, who believe it's what's needed to help the city prosper.

"We want to keep the students here and and what they learn here with the hope that they're the next innovators," said Frank Quintero, Merced Economic Development manager.

Hope and pride are desperately needed by the community, which has seen its reputation tainted by bad news and has struggled to remind outsiders that there's a four-year-old university.

"(The speech) will buoy the community for awhile," Quintero said. "In a nutshell, she branded us a university town."

Peppered with personal experience and examples of UC Merced students, faculty and community members changing people's lives, Obama's address inspired much of the crowd that gathered downtown to watch it, despite the withering heat.

Her message of hope and promise was tempered with the reality of today, which all too familiar for many Mercedians.

"Your excellent ideas will be peppered with flaws," she said. "You will make mistakes that will shatter your confidence."

Alleashia Thomas, of Merced, sat with her biracial grandchildren on the street corner while she waited for the commencement to begin. She wanted to be among a crowd while she witnessed history.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency motivated her daughter to re-enroll in college, Thomas explained. The Obama family embodies the notion that anyone can succeed if they try.

"(Michelle Obama) is just an average person who made it to the White House," Thomas said.

Residents huddled in the shade and flapped paper fans to keep cool. Some brought chairs and staked out their seats early. Applause erupted at the same points that people cheered at the university. Shutters aimed at the jumbo television snapped as Obama stepped to the podium.

How many students who were planning to return to Southern California or the Bay Area and decide to stay in Merced remains to be seen. Still, resident Staci Santa thinks Obama's message resonated with some graduates.

"Anything coming from her will have more importance than coming from a mom or aunt," said Santa, who was wearing an Obama T-shirt and sat beneath an umbrella.

Obama arrived at Castle Airport just before noon before a crowd of a few dozen who figured out that's where she'd arrive.

Tonja Davis, of Atwater, went with her daughter, Desiree, to the former Air Force Base at 7 a.m. to wait for Obama's plane.

"I'm just glad being on the same road she's driving down," Davis explained.

Out of nowhere, four hours later, the jet whooshed in to cheers. Within minutes a motorcade whizzed by. One woman wept. Others shouted her name.

After the flash of excitement, one woman left angry that no one even caught a glimpse of the first lady. "That's a stinking rotten bummer. Look at all the people here," she shouted. "I'm glad I didn't vote for her."

Merced resident Jim Minnear came with his wife and kids to watch the plane land. "Dislike her or like her, she's still the first lady," he said. "You still need to respect her."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.