Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama at UC Merced's 2009 Commencement

For Immediate Release

The White House
Office of the First Lady

Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama at the University of California, Merced, 2009 Commencement

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much, Class of 2009. (Applause.) All I can say is wow, and good afternoon, everyone. I am so proud of these graduates. We have to just give them one big round of applause before I start. This is just an amazing day. (Applause.) I want to thank Dick for that lovely introduction. He makes for a good companion when you have to go to an inauguration. (Laughter.) So I'm glad he could be here with me today. I appreciate all that he has done to make this day so very special.

I want to acknowledge a few other people before I begin: Congressman Jerry McNerney, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, Attorney General Jerry Brown, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass. I want to thank you all for your leadership and for being an example of what a life in public service can mean to us all.

And of course I have to thank Chancellor Kang for this incredible welcome, and as well as President Yudof and Provost Keith Alley for all that they've done to help make this event just such a wonderful day for us all.

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. (Applause.)

Now, I know we've got a lot of national press out there, and a few people may be wondering why did I choose the University of California-Merced to deliver my first commencement speech as First Lady. (Applause.) Well, let me tell you something, the answer is simple: You inspired me, you touched me. (Applause.) 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. Your perseverance and creativity were on full display in your efforts to bring me here to Merced for this wonderful occasion. (Applause.)

So let me tell you what you did. If you don't know, parents, because some of you were involved, my office received thousands of letters and, of course, Valentines cards from students; each and every one of them so filled with hope and enthusiasm. It moved not just me but my entire staff. They came up to me and said, "Michelle, you have to do this." (Laughter.) "You have to go here!" (Applause.)

They were all terrific. Like the one from Christopher Casuga that read, "Dear Mrs. Obama -- Please come to UC Merced's Commencement. We could really use the publicity." (Laughter.) That really touched me.

Or then there was one from Jim Greenwood who wrote not on his behalf but on behalf of his wife and the mother of his two children, who is graduating with us today. (Applause.)

And then there was the one from Andrea Mercado. I think this was one of my favorites. Andrea said that the role of First Lady is -- and I quote -- "the balance between politics and sanity." (Laughter.) Thank you, Andrea, for that vote of confidence. (Laughter.)

I received letters from everyone connected to this university -- not just students, but they came from parents, and grandparents, and cousins, and aunts, and uncles, and neighbors, and friends, all of them telling me about how hard you all have worked and how important this day is for you and for the entire Merced community.

And then there's that beautiful video, the "We Believe" video. Well, let me tell you, it worked, because I'm here! (Applause.)

And I want to thank in particular Sam Fong and Yaasha Sabba and all of the students who launched the "Dear Michelle" campaign. (Applause.) I am honored by your efforts and happy to be with you to celebrate this important milestone.

But I understand that this type of community-based letter writing campaign isn't unique to me. This community, this Merced community, employed the same strategy to help get the University of California to build the new campus here in Merced. (Applause.) Every school kid in the entire county, I understand, sent a postcard to the UC Board of Regents in order to convince them to select Merced, and I just love the fact that some of the graduates sitting this audience today participating were involved in that campaign, as well, and then they used the same strategy to get me here. That is amazing. And what it demonstrates is the power of many voices coming together to make something wonderful happen. And I'm telling you, next year's graduation speaker better watch out, because Merced students know how to get what they want. (Laughter and applause.)

This type of activism and optimism speaks volumes about the students here, the faculty, the staff, but also about the character and history of Merced -- a town built by laborers and immigrants from all over the world: early settlers who came here as pioneers and trailblazers in the late 1800s as part of the Gold Rush and built the churches and businesses and schools that exist; African Americans who escaped slavery and the racism of the South to work on the railways as truck drivers up and down Route 99; Mexican Americans who traveled north to find work on the farms and have since become the backbone of our agricultural industry -- (applause); Asian Americans who arrived in San Francisco and have slowly branched out to become a part of the community in the San Joaquin Valley. (Applause.)

Merced's make-up may have changed over the years, but its values and character have not -- long, hot days filled with hard work by generations of men and women of all races who wanted an opportunity to build a better life for their children and their grandchildren; hardworking folks who believed that access to a good education would be their building blocks to a brighter future.

You know, I grew up in one of those communities with similar values. Like Merced, the South Side of Chicago is a community where people struggled financially, but worked hard, looked out for each other and rallied around their children. My father was a blue-collar worker, as you all know. My mother stayed at home to raise me and my brother. We were the first to graduate from college in our immediate family. (Applause.)

I know that many of you out here are also the first in your families to achieve that distinction, as well. (Applause.) And as you know, being the first is often a big responsibility, particularly in a community that, like many others around our country at the moment, is struggling to cope with record high unemployment and foreclosure rates; a community where families are a single paycheck or an emergency room visit away from homelessness.

And with jobs scarce, many of you may be considering leaving town with your diploma in hand. And it wouldn't be unreasonable. For those of you who come from communities facing similar economic hardships, you may also be wondering how you'll build decent lives for yourselves if you choose to return to those communities.

But I would encourage you to call upon the same hope and hard work that brought you to this day. 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. By using what you have learned here, you can shorten the path perhaps for kids who may not see a path at all.

And I was once one of those kids. Most of you were once one of those kids. I grew up just a few miles from the University of Chicago in my hometown. The university, like most institutions, was a major cultural, economic institution in my neighborhood. My mother even worked as a secretary there for several years.

Yet that university never played a meaningful role in my academic development. The institution made no effort to reach out to me -- a bright and promising student in their midst -- and I had no reason to believe there was a place for me there. Therefore, when it came time for me to apply to college, I never for one second considered the university in my own backyard as a viable option.

And as fate would have it, I ultimately went on and accepted a position in student affairs at the University of Chicago more than a decade later. What I found was that working within the institution gave me the opportunity to express my concerns about how little role the university plays in the life of its neighbors. I wanted desperately to be involved in helping to break down the barriers that existed between the campus and the community.

And in less than a year, through that position, I worked with others to build the university's first Office of Community Service. And today, the office continues to provide students with opportunities to help reshape relationships between the university and its surrounding community. Students there today are volunteering in local elementary schools, serving as mentors at high schools, organizing neighborhood watches, and worshiping in local churches.

But you know a little something about working with your community here, don't you, Merced? UC Merced, its faculty and its students seem to already have a handle on this need and it speaks once again to the character of this community. As I learned more about what you have done, I am so impressed with how the students, faculty and the community are collaborating to ensure that every child in this community understands there is a place for them at this big beautiful university if they study hard and stay out of trouble.

For example, there is Kevin Mitchell, a professor in the School of Natural Science, who studies chaos, of all things. He's coordinating a program to bring physicists into local elementary and high schools to help open the eyes of students to the possibility of careers in science.

Then there is Claudia Zepeda, a junior psychology major, who is mentoring students from her high school here. The first in her family to attend college, Claudia works with the Westside Initiative for Leaders, an organization that helps prepare disadvantaged students for college. And because of her help, 10 students from her high school will attend UC Merced this coming fall. That is amazing. (Applause.)

And then there are local leaders like police officer, Nick Navarette -- (applause) -- who coordinates a program that brings about 60 UC Merced students to local elementary schools each week to mentor students from poorer neighborhoods. Nick then brings kids to campus regularly so that they can do something special; see what it's like to be on a college campus, and begin to dream.

And then there is my friend and former law school professor, Charles Ogletree, a product of the Merced public schools. (Applause.) Now, he is an example of how you can bring your skills back. His ambitions took him far away from home, but he has never forgotten where he came from.

Each year, with his help, Merced's high schools are able to hand out scholarships, not just for the best and the brightest students, but also for many students who are just stuck in poverty and simply need a hand up to compete.

So the faculty, the students, local leaders, Merced alumni, everyone here is doing their part to help the children of Merced realize that access to a quality education is available to them as long as they work hard, study hard and apply themselves.

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. (Applause.) And we're going to need all of you, graduates, this generation, we need you to lead the way.

Now, let me tell you, careers focused on lifting up our communities -- whether it's helping transform troubled schools or creating after-school programs or training workers for green jobs -- these careers are not always obvious, but today they are necessary. Solutions to our nation's most challenging social problems are not going to come from Washington alone. Real innovation often starts with individuals who apply themselves to solve a problem right in their own community. That's where the best ideas come from.

And some pretty incredible social innovations have been launched by young people all across this world.

Teach for America in this country is a great example. It was created by Wendy Kopp as a part of her undergraduate senior thesis in 1989. And now, as a result of her work then, more than 6,200 corps members are teaching in our country's neediest communities, reaching approximately 400,000 students.

And then there's Van Jones, who recently joined the Obama administration, a special adviser to the President on green jobs. Van started out as a grassroots organizer and became an advocate and a creator of "green collar" jobs -- jobs that are not only good for the environment, but also provide good wages and career advancement for both skilled and unskilled workers; jobs similar to the ones being created right here at UC Merced as this green campus continues to grow.

And then one of my heroes, Geoffrey Canada, grew up in the South Bronx. After graduating from Bowdoin and getting his masters at Harvard, he returned to New York City and used his education to ensure that the next generation would have a chance at the same opportunity. Geoffrey's Harlem Children's Zone is a nationally recognized program that covers 100 blocks and reaches nearly 10,000 children with a variety of social services to ensure that all kids are prepared to get a good education.

And in an effort to invest in and encourage the future Wendy Kopps, Van Joneses and Geoffrey Canadas, the Obama administration recently launched the Office of Social Innovation at the White House. The President has asked Congress to provide $50 million in seed capital to fund great ideas like the ones I just described. The Office is going to identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country.

And this university is blessed with some of the leading researchers and academics who are focusing already their attention on solving some of our nation's most critical issues, like the energy crisis, global warming, climate change, and air pollution.

And you, the students, the graduates and faculty on this campus, you're capable of changing the world, that's for sure. Where you are right now is no different from where Wendy and Van and Geoffrey were when they graduated, remember that. You too can have this same transformative effect on the community of Merced and our entire nation. 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. Take the same hope and optimism, the hard work and tenacity that brought you to this point, and carry that with you for the rest of your life in whatever you choose to do. Each and every single day, some young person is out there changing the ways -- the world in ways both big and small.

But let me tell you something, as you step out into that big, open world, and you start building your lives, the truth is that you will face tough times, you will certainly have doubts, let me tell you, because I know I did when I was your age. There will be days when you will worry about whether you're really up for the challenge. Maybe some of you already feel a little of that right now. Maybe you're wondering: Am I smart enough? Do I really belong? Can I live up to all those expectations that everyone has of me?

And you will definitely have your share of setbacks. Count on it. Your best laid plans will be consumed by obstacles. Your excellent ideas will be peppered with flaws. You will be confronted with financial strains as your loans become due and salaries fall short of both expectations and expenses. You will make mistakes that will shatter your confidence. You will make compromises that will test your convictions. You will find that there is rarely a clear and direct path to any of your visions. And you will find that you'll have to readjust again and again and again. And there may be times when you wonder whether it's all worth it. And there may be moments when you just want to quit.

But in those moments, those inevitable moments, I urge you to think about this day. Look around you. Look around you. There are thousands and thousands of hardworking people who have helped you get to this point, people who are celebrating with you today, who are praying for you every single day, and others who couldn't be here, for whatever reason. I want you to think of the people who sacrificed for you -- you know that -- family members who worked a third job to get you through, who took on the extra shifts to get you through, who put off doing something important for themselves to get you to this day.

And think about the friends who never got the chance to go to college but were still invested in your success -- friends who talked you out of dropping out, friends who kept you out of trouble so that you could graduate on time, friends who forced you to study when you wanted to procrastinate. (Laughter.)

Most importantly, though, think of the millions of kids living all over this world who will never come close to having the chance to stand in your shoes -- kids in New Orleans whose schools are still recovering from the ravages of Katrina; kids who will never go to school at all because they're forced to work in a sweat shop somewhere; kids in your very own communities who just can't get a break, who don't have anyone in their lives telling them that they're good enough and smart enough to do whatever they can imagine; kids who have lost the ability to dream. These kids are desperate to find someone or something to cling to. They are looking to you for some sign of hope.

So, whenever you get ready to give up, think about all of these people and remember that you are blessed. Remember that you are blessed. Remember that in exchange for those blessings, you must give something back. (Applause.) You must reach back and pull someone up. You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future.

As advocate and activist Marian Wright Edelman says, "Service is the rent we pay for living…it is the true measure, the only measure of our success." So, graduates, 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. 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.

There are a lot of people in your lives who know a little something about the power of hope. Don't we, parents and grandparents? (Applause.) Look, I know a little something about the power of hope. My husband knows a little something about the power of hope. (Applause.)

You are the hope of Merced and of this nation. And be the realization of our dreams and the hope for the next generation. We believe in you. Thank you so much, and good luck. God bless you all. (Applause.)

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