Historiann.com exclusive! Michelle Obama at UC Merced, by Susan Amussen

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.  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.) 


Susan Amussen, in full regalia

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!

0 thoughts on “Historiann.com exclusive! Michelle Obama at UC Merced, by Susan Amussen

  1. Wonderful coverage — though I’m not sure that someone who primarily defines herself as a mother could have made that speech.

    I don’t envy you Merced in the summer! I used to live in California and the central valley is intense.


  2. Thanks for the report! And congratulations to the whole university community in Merced, especially the students, for graduating the first class. It must feel like an exciting re-invention of one’s commitment to education to be involved in that moment.


  3. Great report! The _New York Times_ will soon start doing capsule summaries of commencement ceremonies around the nation. It is a difficult-to-impossible genre of event to make interesting from a journalistic perspective, save maybe to home-bound grandparents of graduates. But this one quite filled the bill. Thanks.


  4. What a wonderful event and a wonderful report.

    I spent summers in Fresno when I was a kid, and recall spending most of my time in a bathing suit in or near a lawn sprinkler. Sprinklers in regalia might be almost as much fun!


  5. Canada Goose — I think my annoyance is that the “Mom-in-Chief” stuff is political as much as anything else (which is not to suggest that Obama doesn’t have a strong commitment to her daughters.) It obscures Obama’s activism and her commitments to community building.
    As for summer in Merced, British historians really need to go to London for the summer 🙂
    Squadrato — it does re-energize you to figure out how to start something new. And for the faculty who were here on the first day, it was really intense.
    Indyanna — I think the only thing harder than making commencement interesting to outsiders is giving a commencement address, most of which are terrible.
    Flavia — we did wonder why they didn’t just turn on the sprinklers. Would have ruined my robe, but still!


  6. Fantastic! What a treat for the students! They must have felt like they were on top of the world!

    Pappy Obama was just at my alma mater, and I’ll say I thought the ND looked really good! It would have been a huge slap in the face of the students to un-invite the President.



  7. the speaker (Chair of the Regents) said that “It was hard to imagine a better role model for girls and women”

    What annoys me the most about this is the categorization of a successful, socially engaged woman as a role model for other women, but apparently not for boys and men. Michelle Obama is a fine role model for anybody.


  8. What a great report on an awesome commencement event. Thanks so much Susan and Historiann for sharing this. Michelle Obama just exudes intelligence, drive and class — her choice to come to Merced and the speech, itself, show she’s a great role model for anybody, as truffula said. *glares meaningfully at the Chair of Regents*


  9. I like truffula’s framing of the role model problem. As I listened to the turgid introduction (and the chair of the Regents is Dianne Feinstein’s husband) I made an angry note about the role model line. I assumed it was the Mom + smart, but hadn’t thought about why not men and boys. And really, we are all to aspire to marry a future president?

    Thanks, Historiann, for letting me write this!


  10. And really, we are all to aspire to marry a future president?

    Well, Susan, if I have a husband, I assume he married me because he saw me as a future President. (If he exists, he’s probably deeply disappointed!)

    Thanks so much for writing this.


  11. Your mom was kind enough to share this with me, Susan.
    Wonderful look inside what we saw on TV only from the outside.
    I recall years ago LBJ visiting my campus at the height of the Vietnam War picking a place where he thought he might be well received only to face lots of protestors and my own editorial against his visit in the school newspaper I was editing. Caused quite as stir!
    I remember the pre-visit work, including the White House advance team setting up sessions to create welcome signs that were supposed to look spontaneous!


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