President Barack Obama spoke at a special commencement ceremony at Angels Stadium in Anaheim on June 14 with approximately 36,000 graduates and guests in attendance.
The culmination of over a year of planning by the 50th Anniversary Planning Committee, the special ceremony signaled the coming of UCI’s 50th anniversary and was intended to echo President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 visit, where he dedicated the land that would become UC Irvine.
The President’s speech opened with a healthy dose of humor. After admitting that he never thought he would say “Hello, Anteaters,” Obama also poked fun at the traditional UCI cry, mispronouncing it as “Zoot, zoot, zoot.” He went on to compare UCI’s ranking as the top university under 50 years old with its Guinness World Record for holding the largest water gun fight.
“I think this generation of young people is super underrated,” Obama said, referring to a student’s letter that he received as part of the campaign to invite him to speak. Although her letter referred to the collective university as underrated, Obama used the opportunity to remind graduates, despite witnessing terror attacks as they grew up and facing an economy in turmoil, that they are on record as being the most optimistic about America’s future.
Obama admitted that post-grads searching for a job in a “still-healing” job market will be feeling the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; the president proceeded to remind the audience of several reasons, all stemming from his administration’s policies, to strengthen the graduates’ optimism. These included the withdrawal troops from overseas, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the doubling of states that allow for gay marriage.
“I’m here to tell you you are right to be optimistic,” Obama said, referring to those achievements as only the progress that graduates have seen while they were studying at UCI.
Obama cited the prevention of gun violence in schools, embracing of immigrants and DREAMers, curbing college costs and the rebuilding of the middle class among widening inequality as some of the challenges the nation must still tackle and why graduates should hold on to their optimism rather than give in to cynicism.
Despite saying he didn’t want to give a policy speech, and that he had already given a climate address last summer, his speech’s theme focused on the “growing threat of a rapidly changing climate” in an attempt to rally graduates to action.
Drawing a comparison to when President John Kennedy beseeched a commencement ceremony that space was a worthy goal for America, Obama implored graduates to contribute to a future towards which progress will not always be immediate but will be measured in the livelihood of the planet for future generations.
“You’re the antidote to cynicism,” Obama said.
In addition to Obama’s speech, the ceremony saw other highlights, like the speech of Jacqueline Rodriguez, a 24 year-old sociology graduate and a finalist for the Fulbright scholarship.
“I know that many of us come from a place of struggle. Yet our commitment to our families, our communities and to ourselves is what brought us here today,” Rodriguez said.
She reminded graduates that despite “the looming specter of student debt” and the pressure to find their first professional jobs, their college educations were a privilege extended to them by the passage of civil rights and that they must pay it forward and continue to expand educational opportunities for others.
“To continue our commitment to democracy and social justice,” Rodriguez said.
Chancellor Michael Drake also presented the President with the UCI Medal, the highest distinction that UCI bestows.
Cinthia Flores, UCI Law graduate and outgoing student regent, was mentioned by Obama during his speech. Flores, the first Latina undergraduate student body president at UCLA and the first in her family to graduate high school, university and law school, plans to practice labor law in Los Angeles.
Following his 30-minute address, the President received a standing ovation. Chancellor Drake, along with Rodriguez, Dr. Jessica Pratt, who was the graduate student speaker and Melissa McCann, Masters of Fine Arts candidate and singer of the National Anthem, led the graduates and audience in a final “Zot, zot, zot.”
President Obama got it right the second time.