MERCED, Calif. — "First" was the operative word Saturday as Michelle Obama delivered her first commencement address as the nation's first African-American first lady to the first full graduating class of the fledgling University of California-Merced.
She spoke of the obligations of being first, noting that many of the 500 graduates — just like her — were probably the first in their families to earn a college degree.
"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 from homelessness," she said. "And with jobs scarce, many of you may be considering leaving town with your diploma in hand, and it wouldn't be unreasonable."
She urged the students not to abandon their communities.
Never miss a local story.
"I would encourage you to call upon the same hope and hard work that brought you to this day," she said. "Call upon that optimism and tenacity that built the University of California at Merced to invest in the future of Merced and your own home towns all across the country."
Obama tempered her words of hopeful optimism with a dose of stark reality.
"You will make mistakes that will shatter your confidence," she said "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 will have to readjust again and again."
But when things get darkest, Obama told the graduates, "think about this day."
"I want you to think of the people who sacrificed for you...family members who worked a third job to get you through, who took on an extra shift to get you through, who put off doing something important for themselves to get you to this day," she said. "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 you could graduate on time."
"So whenever you get ready to give up, think about all these people and remember that you are blessed," she continued. "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 stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future."
The first lady's visit represented a coup and source of bragging rights for the four-year-old, 2,700-student campus and an area in the firm grip of economic hard times with a 20.4 unemployment rate.
Only 500 students graduated from UC-Merced Saturday, but more than 12,000 people showed up for commencement. Michelle Obama said she selected the tiny campus to give her first commencement address because they asked her — and kept on asking her.
Students launched "Operation Lady Bird," an aggressive drive to get Michelle Obama to be their commencement speaker. They bombarded the first lady's office with letters. They sent a video imploring her to come. They flooded her office with Valentine's Day notes. They enlisted the help of Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree, a Merced native who mentored the president and first lady when they are students at the Ivy League institution.
"You inspired me, you touched me," Michelle Obama said of the student's campaign. "Your perseverance and creativity were on full display in your efforts to bring me here to Merced for this wonderful occasion...It moved not just me, but my entire staff. They came up to me and said 'Michelle, you have to do this, you have to go here.'"
Her visit didn't generate the controversy that her husband's address Sunday at the University of Notre Dame has. Some students and anti-abortion activists have protested Obama's invitation to speak at the Catholic university because he supports legalized abortion.
At least 19 protesters were arrested for trespassing on the South Bend, Ind., campus Saturday; none of them were Notre Dame students, according to law enforcement officials. About 21 people were arrested Saturday.
(Gaines, of the Merced Sun-Star, reported from Merced; Douglas reported from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY