Steve Zylius / UC Irvine UC Irvine undergraduate speaker Jacqueline Rodriguez helps President Obama master the "Zot!" sign during commencement Saturday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

President Obama celebrates class of 2014

He punctuates speech on climate change with hearty “Zot! Zot! Zot!”

“Hello, Anteaters! That’s something I never thought I’d say.”

With those words, President Barack Obama greeted more than 6,000 members of UC Irvine’s class of 2014 and 30,000 family members and friends at a special commencement ceremony Saturday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

In a nearly 30-minute talk that received three standing ovations, Obama 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. And he encouraged graduates to take on the challenges of climate change in the same way the nation answered the call to reach the moon in the 1960s.

Obama gave kudos to UCI for being “ahead of the curve” on the issue.

“UC Irvine set up the first Earth system science department in America,” the president said. “A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer. A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s reports showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat. Students and professors are in the field working to predict changing weather patterns, fire seasons and water tables – working to understand how shifting seasons affect global ecosystems; to get zero-emission vehicles on the road faster; to help coastal communities adapt to rising seas. And 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.”

Success against climate change will take perseverance, he cautioned.

“I’m here to tell you: Don’t believe the cynicism. Guard against it. Don’t buy into it. … I want to show you how badly we need you – both your individual voices and your collective efforts – to give you the chance you seek to change the world and maybe even save it.”

The ceremony opened with comments from UCI Chancellor Michael Drake and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham, who introduced the two student speakers. Jacqueline Rodriguez, who was receiving bachelor’s degrees in sociology and Chicano/Latino studies, focused her talk on increased access to higher education. Jessica Pratt, who was receiving a doctorate in ecology & evolutionary biology, outlined the need to care for the planet.

Both women are the first in their families to earn university degrees. Along with M.F.A. graduate Melissa McCann, who sang the national anthem, they gave Obama his first lesson in Anteater spirit, teaching him how to make the “Zot!” gesture.

The brilliant weather Saturday, which prompted many in the crowd to use their event programs as sunshades, evoked the sunny day 50 years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated the land for UCI. On June 20, 1964, he stepped out of a helicopter into what was then an undeveloped Irvine Ranch meadow and told the assembled crowd: “All our hopes for peace depend on the kind of society we can build in the United States. And that in turn rests on our system of education. … Help us demonstrate to the world that people of compassion and commitment can free their fellow citizens from the bonds of injustice, the prisons of poverty and the chains of ignorance.”

Obama was similarly inspiring as he concluded: “Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.”

The Anaheim event marked the kickoff of UCI’s 50th anniversary celebration, which will continue through June 2016.

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