Obama acknowledged that many people wondered why she chose UC Merced to give her first commencement address as first lady and her only one this season.
"The answer is simple: You inspired me, you touched me," she said to the overjoyed crowd referring to a letter-writing campaign requesting her attendance at graduation. "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."
In her 20-minute speech, Obama touched on the students' pioneering spirit, commending them for helping transform the former golf course northeast of Merced into a growing place for learning and research.
"It is this kind of commitment that we're going to need in this nation to put this country back on a path where every child expects to succeed and where every child has the tools that they need to achieve their dreams. That's what we're aiming for," she said. "And we're going to need all of you graduates, this generation, we need you to lead the way."
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Obama noted the obstacles graduates face in today's faltering economy, encouraged the soon-to-be alumni to inspire others to chase after their college dream and talked about giving back to the community, something dear to her and President Barack Obama.
"When times get tough and fear sets in, think of those people who paved the way for you and those who are counting on you to pave the way for them. Never let setbacks or fear dictate the course of your life," Obama said.
"Hold on to the possibility
and push beyond the fear. Hold on to the hope that brought you here today, the hope of laborers and immigrants, settlers and slaves, whose blood and sweat built this community and made it possible for you to sit in these seats."
The crowd of 12,000 watched Obama's address with the aid of four Jumbotron screens. A slight breeze carried the smell of sunscreen across the Bowl, a sunken area west of the quad bordered by the campus's canal and lake. About 40 VIPs joined Obama on stage, overlooking golden and brown hills with grazing cows just south of campus.
During Obama's speech, there were no bouncing beach balls among graduates or side conversations among friends and family in the audience. But many fanned themselves or made hats for shade out of cardboard boxes, brown paper bags and commencement programs.
Nearly 90 people were treated by medical personnel because of the heat; eight were taken to Mercy Merced Medical Center.
'Best' of the UC system
Also at the ceremony, student speaker Jason Castillo reminded the crowd of UC Merced's early days taking a bus to labs in Atwater. He commended students and staff for their part in becoming a major piece of the university's foundation.
"While we do not have an ocean view like many of our sister campuses, this area does have a strong sense of family, community, character, ethnic diversity and support. UC Merced represents the best of what the UC system has to offer," said Castillo, a biological sciences graduate, who won auditions to speak Saturday.
Chancellor Steve Kang quoted Mahatma Gandhi, adding his take to the Indian spiritual leader's proverbs.
"Gandhi admonished against science without humanity; to which I would add, may humanity's well- being be the ultimate goal of your scientific discovery," Kang said.
When Obama arrived on campus at about 12:45 p.m., she met with the two dozen graduates responsible for bringing her to campus with hundreds of handwritten letters and Valentine's Day cards.
Erika Amesi and Jessica Julian were in that small group that took a picture with and received hugs from Obama.
"I'm still numb. Today's my birthday and it's the most amazing birthday ever. It was so emotional -- I started getting teary eyed," said Julian, who helped stamp and address the Valentine's Day cards.
Both graduates said Obama's speech exceeded their expectations.
"After, I was ready to go into the world and I'm ready to do this," Julian said. "I can't believe it happened."
A crowning achievement
Hosting a high-profile speaker in Obama was the crowning achievement for graduates, Kang said, but it required special arrangements, including metal detectors for Saturday's guests and moving the ceremony from the evening to the afternoon. Those who attended the event said the sacrifices were worth it to get to hear Obama speak.
"It was completely and utterly miserable. It was the hottest two or three hours of my life," said Diana Kniazewycz, 17. "It was worth melting in the sun. I liked how (Obama) talked about Merced as a whole and its community."
After Obama finished speaking, many community members who had only come to hear her cleared out of the Bowl. Others sought shade outside the Bowl, not straying so far away that they couldn't hear graduates' names being called.
Marc and Carolyn Boler traveled three hours from Dixon to see Obama's speech and see their employee's daughter graduate. Before the event started, Carolyn Boler purchased a T-shirt with Obama's image on it.
She said she thinks Obama chose to address UC Merced's graduation because she relates to the university's students.
"I think she's coming because of the students and who they are and what they represent. It's what she stands for. It's a good match," she said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.