‘A great day to be an Anteater’

President Barack Obama and Jacqueline Rodriguez

By Kathryn Bold

In his address to UC Irvine’s class of 2014, President Barack Obama nailed it: “This,” he told the more than 6,000 graduates and 30,000 family members and friends who’d come to Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 14, “is a pretty cool place to hold a commencement.”

For their part, Anteaters thought it was pretty cool to have a sitting U.S. president deliver the keynote speech at their historic all-graduate ceremony.

Clad in black robes and mortarboards, the students whooped and hollered, waved and blew kisses to their families – hamming it up when they saw themselves in real time on the stadium’s gigantic video display. They flooded Twitter and Instagram with thousands of messages and selfies; some posts with the hashtag #UCIGrad were shared on the big screen.

“I got my millisecond of fame,” said one happy grad after seeing himself on camera.

“Today’s a great day to be an Anteater,” said Chancellor Michael Drake, summing up the feelings of many students, relatives, faculty members, staff, alumni and supporters – both in the stands and watching remotely via a live Web stream, which had more than 27,000 page views during the ceremony.

From world series to world’s climate

The ballpark and brilliant sunny skies gave the commencement a celebratory, summertime feel. Even the president got into the spirit, saying: “If the hot dog guy comes by, get me one.”

Obama’s appearance recalled the historic visit of another U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who dedicated the UC Irvine campus on June 20, 1964. The special ceremony kicked off the university’s 50th anniversary festivities.

“I’m here for a simple reason: You asked,” said Obama, referring to the 10,000 postcards that UCI students and the campus community had sent to the White House requesting that the president speak at graduation. “All of you had the inside track in getting me here because my personal assistant, Ferial [Govashiri ’05], is a proud Anteater. Until today, I did not understand why she greets me every morning by shouting ‘Zoot! Zoot! Zoot!’” he joked. “She’s very proud to see her brother, Sina, graduate today as well.”

In a nearly 30-minute talk that received three standing ovations, the president gave a shout-out to the UCI baseball team playing in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.; acknowledged the campus’s Guinness world record for largest water pistol fight; and noted the 65 veterans and four ROTC members among the assembled students.

Obama encouraged graduates to take action on climate change in the same way the nation answered the call to reach the moon in the 1960s. And he acknowledged UCI’s commitment to sustainability.

“When I challenged colleges to reduce their energy use by 20 percent by 2020, UC Irvine went ahead and did it last year. Done. So UC Irvine is ahead of the curve. All of you are ahead of the curve,” he said.

‘Zot!’ goes global

Before Obama left the stage, Drake asked undergraduate speaker Jacqueline Rodríguez, graduate speaker Jessica Pratt and national anthem singer Melissa McCann to show the president how to execute a proper “Zot!” Rodríguez helped him with the Anteater hand sign, which Obama didn’t have quite right at first.

“It was a bit intimidating,” she said later. “I was thinking, ‘Should I correct the president or not?’ I didn’t want to be disrespectful. But he was really warm and down-to-earth and friendly with the students.” Mindful of the Secret Service, she decided to go for it and adjusted Obama’s fingers so they formed a proper snout. The president then led the crowd in a triple-“Zot!” cheer.

For Rodríguez, the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and the first in her family to graduate from college, the experience was amazing. Images of Obama and her were disseminated by news outlets worldwide and proliferated on social media.

“My Facebook feed blew up,” she said. “People kept tagging and texting me, saying they saw it on the news – especially my friends and family in El Salvador. To them, it wasn’t just a symbol of my accomplishments but the fruit of my father’s hard work and their support.”

Rodríguez’s mother died when she was 5, and she was raised by her father, Ricardo, in Los Angeles. He has good reason to be proud of his daughter. Rodríguez earned bachelor’s degrees in sociology and Chicano/Latino studies, and this fall she’ll begin a Ph.D. program in education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Post-POTUS party

After the pomp and circumstance and the president’s departure, graduates held an impromptu party on the field, hugging, dancing and taking photos with their cellphones.

“I found it really overwhelming,” said Marian Borja, minutes after receiving a bachelor’s degree in public health policy. “We all got to graduate together. It was really kind of cool to see [our postcard campaign] turn into this.”

On June 15 and 16, members of UCI’s class of 2014 also were honored in individual school ceremonies at the campus’s Bren Events Center, where each got to walk the stage.

“We got the best of both worlds,” Borja said.

*Photo: Steve Zylius / UC Irvine