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

May 16, 2009

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.)