MERCED, Calif. — With First Lady Michelle Obama providing inspiration and encouragement, and with more than 12,000 attendees cheering them on, some 350 members of the University of California, Merced's historic inaugural class were awarded bachelor's degrees today at the four-year-old university's first full commencement ceremony.
"As the students who helped build this school, I ask you, make your legacy a lasting one," Mrs. Obama told the graduates as an enthusiastic crowd of students, family members, dignitaries, university personnel, community members and other well-wishers looked on.
"Dream big, think broadly about your life and please make giving back to your community a part of that vision," she said. "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."
Mrs. Obama said she accepted the students' invitation to speak - her first commencement address as First Lady of the United States - because she was moved by the sincerity and creativity of their appeal. The student-led initiative included a YouTube video, a Facebook campaign and more than 900 Valentine's Day cards.
"You inspired me!" she said.
The First Lady's keynote address highlighted a historic ceremony honoring the first class of undergraduate students to complete a full four-year course of study at UC Merced. Another 23 graduate students received master's or doctorate degrees during the two-hour ceremony. Approximately 145 students who completed their degree requirements "off cycle" (between 2008 and 2009 commencement exercises) or are expected to do so before next year's commencement also participated.
U.S. Congressman Jerry McNerney, California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, Sr., California Attorney General Jerry Brown, University of California President Mark Yudof, UC Board of Regents Chairman Richard Blum and numerous other state and local dignitaries attended the event. Big-screen televisions stationed throughout the city of Merced allowed community members unable to attend in person to watch the proceedings as well.
"Today, the nation's eyes are riveted on Merced for this historic commencement," said UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang (pronounced "Kahng"). "You, our pioneering students, helped write the first chapter of UC Merced's history by choosing to embark on this new venture. And you are part of history in the making today.
"This day brims with the promise of new beginnings. I can think of no better place for the First Lady's first commencement address than UC Merced, a campus rich with symbols of great beginnings."
UC Merced opened its doors in September 2005 as the first new campus in the UC system in more than 40 years, and the first ever in the fast-growing but largely underserved San Joaquin Valley. It traces its history to 1988, when the UC Board of Regents authorized planning for a 10th UC campus. Merced was chosen as the location in 1995.
The university has quickly grown to more than 2,700 students, with the most diverse student body in the UC system. More than half are first-generation college students, many from families whose incomes fall below the state poverty level. All meet or exceed the UC system's high standards for eligibility and sustained academic performance.
Kang, who became the university's second chancellor in 2007, said the graduation of UC Merced's inaugural class is a tribute to the city and region that helped make the university's development possible.
"This is an event to be celebrated not just among our students and their families but by the entire community that welcomed us here and will become home to many of our aspiring graduates," said Kang prior to his formal remarks. "Mrs. Obama's participation makes this day more memorable than we could ever have imagined. Our students, our university and our community will remember her inspirational words for the rest of our lives."
Jason Castillo, a graduating student who spoke on behalf of the inaugural class, recounted the many challenges and achievements that helped define the legacy of the Class of 2009.
"We started this university and as the founding class we have set forth a trail for coming generations," he said. "We have been forever and positively altered by our attendance at UC Merced. I am proud of our distinction as being a class that helped build the foundation of this campus."
During the ceremony, Kang announced that a garden at the university's just-completed Early Childhood Education Center will be named "Michelle Obama's Garden for Young Children" in honor of the First Lady. He also announced that the university's central quadrangle will be named for Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, UC Merced's founding chancellor, who served from 1999 to 2007.
In addition, Kang awarded UC Merced's distinguished Chancellor's Medal to Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Tomlinson-Keasey and her husband, Blake Keasey, and four others whose support has been vital to the university's success. They are: