By now everyone has heard that Michelle Obama gave the Commencement address at UC Merced. It’s possible that some of you have watched it, either live, or online. The occasion was the graduation of the first class to go all the way through a new university. Our students pulled this off. They made a video, they organized sending valentines to the White House, they had a Facebook group, they sent letters to anyone who might help. As she said, the students inspired her. How could they not? They certainly inspire me.
When the First Lady of the United States accepted our invitation, we had to plan for 12,000 guests. Water stations were everywhere, and EMTs were on hand: 850 volunteers made things happen. The cost ballooned from $100,000 to $700,000 when Obama signed on.
Obama brought out the faculty: we had nearly 100% participation. Many faculty members were joined by family: there were lots of people who didn’t know any students. The city had a two day street festival, complete with Jumbotrons showing the speech. Merchants were excited at the prospect of additional business.
The week before commencement different national media outlets featured stories about Merced daily. And while they mentioned the local scene – the foreclosure crisis and high local unemployment – they focused on the university. The media realized is that UC Merced is a good story. But it is also a curiosity. No one would have done such stories on better known or larger universities. Why is she going there? We’re a new university, in the middle of the Central Valley. The university was put here partly to provide economic stimulus and to increase college attendance rates in the Valley. About half of our students are first generation college students, many are immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. Our students are about 1/3 Latino, 1/3 Asian American, 25% white, and 10% African-American.
This is a feel-good story about the success of our students. It is good to remind the public of the successes of education, not just its problems. You will not be surprised, though, that faculty members were missing from the stories; students and administrators were interviewed, but not faculty. And the less feel-good parts to the story of UC Merced were missing: budget constraints, for instance, mean that our faculty is smaller than it should be. Even though senior faculty try to protect junior faculty from service obligations, all faculty do far more service than they should. We are running out of space – free classrooms are almost impossible to find. We will be adding some 500 additional students each year, but the humanities fields are woefully understaffed, and won’t be hiring again for a few years. That’s not the story that was told to the press. Rightly, the University focused on the successes of our students.
On the day — it was hot – 97º, 98º. Security was expected to be the big problem. Everyone was told to arrive early – the campus was locked down two hours before the ceremony – so there was a carnival atmosphere. Food tents all over, and the bookstore made a killing on Michelle tee-shirts; there were also displays of student research and student activities. You went through security just before you entered the bowl where the ceremony was held. Security was annoying but ineffective: where we went through security – as we left the robing room – I went through the metal detector, but they didn’t open my bag – for all anyone knew, I could have had a small handgun. We got a kick out of taking pictures of the snipers on the building opposite as we lined up. We cheered the students as they started to march from across the quad. The platform party came in from the back, so we had no contact with any of them, including Obama. (She did meet with some of the students.) And because of Obama, all sorts of other local “dignitaries” showed up. It’s always good for them to have a chance to see our students. And they had to stay on the platform after she left!
The introduction was dreadful. I cringed when the speaker (Chair of the Regents) said that “It was hard to imagine a better role model for girls and women” than Michelle Obama. It’s not that I don’t admire her, but admiration for her is so tied to the way she defines herself as a mother more than her work in the community (and what she’s doing as First Lady is really good in that area). The best part of the introduction was showing the video “We Believe. ..” that the students had produced to invite her to campus. The multiple voices in the video talked about things they believed in – fun, forgiveness, life, peace – and then said they believed that Michelle Obama represented the fortitude of our country and invited her to speak. Then it was Obama’s turn to speak.
She started slowly, with thanks that sounded more like a political speech. But then it picked up, as she talked about why she chose to speak at Merced. She referred to the “perseverance and creativity” of the students – similar to those that got the university located in Merced – and then suggested the students would need the same gifts as they lived their lives. I loved it when she referred to the burdens that often fall on first generation college students – and she linked her experience to that of so many of our students. She highlighted the work of student, faculty, and staff volunteers who help all children believe there is opportunity available to them. She also used campus volunteerism to suggest that the call to service was a continuation of what students were already doing, not something new. Unlike most commencement addresses that include calls to service, Obama’s linked it both to national renewal and to the importance of connections between the university and the community: she reminded the students that when she was growing up the University of Chicago was irrelevant to her life. She talked about social entrepreneurship; but she also talked about the disappointments and setbacks that they would inevitably face. I liked that – too often commencement speakers ignore the fact that life won’t be easy. She talked about dreaming big, and holding on to hope. She ended with a reference to the student video, “We believe in you”. We do indeed.
It was rhetorically and substantively a terrific speech, easily among the best I’ve heard. I was a bit teary at that point. I am hopelessly sentimental, and I love commencements: I am always moved by what our students have done. I like the opportunity to sit with colleagues who will say as a student walks across the stage “He’s a flake, but a really interesting flake”, or to whom I can say, “I loved that this student told me that she didn’t think her paper was the best she could do.” It was not a generic commencement address but one that connected the University, the city of Merced, and our students. Her staff had done their homework.
Having given the speech, Obama left, and we had the rest of day to focus on the students. Every name was read and each student received, along with their certificate, a copy of a book written by students – as part of a two semester history course – on the founding of the University. After the conferral of degrees, Socorra Camposanto (one of my students) sang a song she’d written – well written and tuneful, if a tad sentimental (as is appropriate) and it captured the local atmosphere. Socorra is an environmental science major, a history minor, a singer-songwriter and a basketball player! I hadn’t a clue when she asked to leave class early “because I have to audition to sing at commencement” how good she was. ”And from a little seed / to a giant tree / only time will tell / who we can be.” This is what makes teaching so compelling. And it makes me teary. (You can find it here, at 21:55.)
We survived. Academic robes were not meant for the Central Valley; as one colleague noted, they are products of northern Europe. Many of us took our robes off, or at least unzipped them, while we baked in the sun, though they also provided protection from sunburn. Every half hour someone came by with cases of bottled water. I drank 3 or 4 liters of water in just over two hours, and was a bit light headed at the end. I carried sunscreen, but the colleague in front of me with the spray bottle of water was even more farsighted! Everyone I’ve talked to since has mentioned how totally exhausted they were by the day.
If we’d been a better known school, we would not have had half the attention we got. That said, I’m glad she came to an unknown school. It allowed many people a glimpse of education as it happens “in the trenches”, and of students – not spoiled rich kids, but hard-working kids who have made something happen. Successful graduations reflect institutional culture. The ceremony captured our students’ ambitions and pride. And it captured the intimate experience of our start-up campus. The formula was followed, but our students made it their own. It was a great day!
Thanks, Susan, for being on the (hot, sweltering) ground in Merced, and for contributing this report!