First lady lauds UC Merced graduates' creativity

First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday urged the first full graduating class at UC Merced to help solve society's problems with the same creativity and persistence they showed in wooing her to be their commencement speaker and in pioneering the 4-year-old campus in the San Joaquin Valley.

"Why did I chose the University of California Merced to deliver my first commencement speech as first lady? Well, let me tell you something, the answer is simple. You inspired me. You touched me," Obama said, referring to the unusual campaign of valentines, letters and videos the students produced in inviting her to speak. "There are few things that are more rewarding than to watch young people recognize they have the power to make their dreams come true. And you did just that."

In her 22-minute speech, she told them to devote their energies to public service. "We need your ideas, graduates. We need your resourcefulness. We need your inventiveness. And as the students who helped build this school, I ask you, make your legacy a lasting one. Dream big, think broadly about your life, and please make giving back to your community a part of that vision."

Her speech to more than 12,000 people in the broiling Central California heat was celebrated as a high-profile coming-of-age party for a school that has had its share of challenges. The first new UC campus in 40 years, UC Merced enrolls 2,700 students and plans to ultimately grow to 25,000 if the state government provides enough funding.

The school's chancellor, Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang, likened his campus to "a little engine that could" and said Obama's visit was an affirmation for its future. "It's a great endorsement about how we can do a lot of great things for the nation, the state and the region," he said in an interview.

But Obama's presence also brought hassles and expenses. Because of security concerns, the audience had to show up hours before the ceremony in the campus' grassy outdoor amphitheater and sit without shade as temperatures reached the mid-90s. Eight people were hospitalized for heat-related problems, a campus spokesperson said. About 80 others were treated at the site.

The usually placid campus, which is surrounded by cow pastures, had an army of police and Secret Service agents, including snipers positioned on rooftops. The school, facing a $700,000 bill for such items as Jumbotron screens and extra guards, has raised about $160,000 in donations.

Her UC Merced speech will be Michelle Obama's only college commencement address this year. Adding to the unusual choice of Merced, she usually does not participate in Saturday public events because she tries to devote the day to her daughters, her aides said. So she returned to Washington before diplomas were awarded and granted no interviews.

President Obama has a more controversial address scheduled for today at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic school where anti-abortion activists are planning to protest his presence and support of abortion rights.

About 450 UC Merced students from its first full freshman class and transfer students participated in Saturday's ceremony.

In her speech, Michelle Obama noted that like her, many of the graduates were among the first in their families to attend college.

Obama, who attended Chicago public schools and later graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School, told them never to forget the sacrifices their families made for them and to acknowledge all the children who "don't have anyone in their lives telling them they are good enough and smart enough to do whatever they can imagine."

When the graduates experience their own hardships, she said, they should "think about all these people and remember you are blessed. Remember that in exchange for those blessings, you must give something back. You must reach back and pull someone up. You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so they can see a brighter future."

Other guests onstage with Obama made up a who's who of California politics and academia, including Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, UC system President Mark G. Yudof and UC regents Chairman Richard Blum.

Many graduates said they felt inspired by Obama and vindicated by her acceptance of what seemed to be an unlikely invitation.

Yaasha Saabaghian, the former student body president who was among those who worked to invite the first lady, said her speech "was phenomenal. It was everything I expected from her." A biology major from San Mateo, he said he was particularly moved by her mention of students who are the first in their families to attend college.

David Lu, a bioengineering graduate from Palmdale, said her comments about not giving up when facing obstacles applied to UC Merced's history. His class arrived in 2005 before lecture halls were ready and attended courses in dorm lounges.

"Even though people doubted us in the beginning and we are a small campus, we bring a fight here," he said. "We are very passionate students, and we want to show that UC Merced is worthy of being a UC campus."

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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