Today’s post is an eyewitness report by Susan Amussen, a historian and Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts at the University of California, Merced, where Michelle Obama spoke at commencement on Sunday afternoon. She is the author of a signal book in feminist early modern English history,
An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988) and most recently,
Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700 (2008). Susan was among the Merced faculty in full academic regalia this weekend in 98-degree heat as Obama spoke.
Michelle Obama at UC Merced, May 17, 2009
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. Continue reading