First lady Michelle Obama praised graduating students at California's smallest, youngest public university for their determination to succeed, urging them to give back to their communities with the same fervor they showed to bring her to campus.
In her debut as a commencement speaker on Saturday, Mrs. Obama evoked the struggles of California's founders — settlers and former slaves, trailblazers and immigrants — to encourage the 493 members of the school's senior class to use their newfound skills to lift up those around them.
"Many of you may be considering leaving town with your diploma in hand, and it wouldn't be unreasonable," Mrs. Obama said before a crowd of 12,000 wilting in the blazing afternoon sun. "By using what you've learned here you can shorten the path perhaps for kids who may not see a path at all. I was once one of those kids."
Clothed in a long black robe and academic regalia, Mrs. Obama spoke of her own drive to get ahead despite the odds, recounting the challenges her working-class family faced on Chicago's South Side.
"You will face tough times. You will certainly have doubts, and let me tell you because I know I did when I was your age," she said. "Remember that you are blessed. 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 else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future."
When students arrived at UC Merced four years ago, there were more cows in the surrounding pasture grass than there were academic buildings in the outer reaches of Merced, about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Today the university boasts the highest percentage of first-generation college students and financially needy students, and one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the 10-campus public system.
Located miles from anything urban, officials scrambled to refashion unfinished facilities to accommodate their high-profile visitor. Still, with no structures to shade spectators from the sun, eight audience members were hospitalized Saturday for heat-related illness.
The first lady spoke to graduates for nearly 25 minutes, suggesting they should cement their legacy by starting after-school programs to help students stay engaged, working to reduce pollution or linking needy families to social services.
Many seniors were most touched by her recognition of their dogged efforts to bring her to the fledgling campus.
"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," she said. "Your perseverance and creativity were on full display in your efforts to bring me here to Merced."
Starting in February, students bombarded the first lady's office with letters, e-mails and hundreds of Valentine's cards.
One freshman holed up in his dorm room to make an animated video he would later post on YouTube called "We Believe in Michelle Obama."
In closing her speech Saturday, the first lady returned the favor, saying simply: "We believe in you."
That left Jessica Julian, a 22-year-old senior active in the effort, in tears. Saturday morning, she and 17 other students who organized "The 'Dear Michelle' Campaign" got an embrace from the first lady.
"My grandparents worked in the fields and my mother held down double jobs to help me get here," said Julian, a psychology and cognitive science major who is first in her family to go to college. "I made sure my little cousins came today so they could see the first lady and understand what they can do if they apply themselves."
Mrs. Obama's visit — her first to California since her husband became president — also has served as a weekend stimulus package for the recession-battered town, whose leaders expect a windfall of about $1.1 million from the 25,000 expected visitors.
Marshall Bishop, who runs an organic restaurant in Merced's four-block-long downtown, said he would bring in $30,000 on Saturday alone due to a huge spike in dinner reservations and a special package of sandwiches, wraps and burgers made for the Secret Service.
"We're annihilated. We're doing 400 percent more than we have done at this point last year," Bishop said, amid the clatter of the lunch crowd. "Merced is normally a slow town for restaurants, and this is doing wonders."