First lady Michelle Obama praised graduates at California's smallest, youngest public university for their struggle to succeed, urging the jubilant members of her audience to give back to their communities.
In her debut as a commencement speaker on Saturday (watch the full speech), Obama evoked the struggles of California's founders — settlers and former slaves, trailblazers and truck drivers — to urge the 493 members of the school's first full graduating 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 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."
Mrs. Obama spoke of her own determination to get ahead despite tough odds, recounting the struggles of her working-class family on Chicago's South Side.
She encouraged graduates to remember they are blessed, and suggested they should cement their legacy by starting after-school programs to help students succeed, working to reduce pollution or linking needy families to social services.
Only four years ago there were more cows in the surrounding pastures than there were academic buildings in Merced, which is about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco. Yosemite National Park is about 90 miles to the northeast.
Students bombarded the first lady's office with letters, e-mails and even hundreds of Valentine's cards in a nonstop campaign to get her to speak at graduation.
And it worked.
She also plans to speak on June 3 to graduates of a charter school in Washington, D.C.