Yep, that's the commander in chief of the United States of America executing a fierce Zot! Zot! Zot! during UCI's historic 2014 commencement.

Ahead of the curve

President Obama’s commencement appearance highlights pivotal year for UC Irvine

It was called “the ‘Zot!’ heard ’round the world.”

After an inspiring June 14 commencement address marked by three standing ovations, President Barack Obama joined 40,000 UC Irvine graduates, faculty, family and supporters at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in the Anteaters’ traditional “Zot! Zot! Zot!” chant, pressing his thumb and two middle fingers together to form the accompanying hand gesture.

The sun-drenched Saturday ceremony was the high point of 2014 for UCI, and those who attended the once-in-a-lifetime event or watched it streamed live will never forget that our nation’s leader, for one day, became an Anteater. “I’m here for a simple reason,” Obama said to wild cheers. “You asked.”

“Today’s a great day to be an Anteater,” said then-Chancellor Michael Drake, certainly the understatement of the year.

It was the historical echo of another sunny day 50 years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson stepped out of a helicopter into an undeveloped Irvine Ranch meadow to dedicate the land for the University of California’s newest campus.

Obama’s appearance also kicked off UC Irvine’s 50th anniversary celebration, which will continue through 2015. Besides toasting the university’s bright past, the ongoing jamboree heralds a brilliant future, as UCI increasingly gains recognition and plaudits as a world-class research institution.

In particular, Obama praised the campus’s considerable contributions to the pressing issue of global climate change: “UC Irvine set up the first Earth system science department in America. 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.”

In this pivotal year, UCI saw new leadership come aboard. Former provost and executive vice chancellor Howard Gillman became the campus’s sixth chancellor after Drake left for Ohio State University.

He has worked aggressively with deans to retain and attract top-flight faculty. The 2013-14 cohort of 77 recruits is one of the largest ever at UCI and includes 13 full professors and one dean. Gillman hailed the newcomers as “people who make us better by bringing fresh perspectives and even higher aspirations for impact in our disciplines and on our world.”

In addition, the chancellor continues leading the implementation of academic initiatives he instituted as provost to help foster multidisciplinary projects that transcend traditional university boundaries. They include: Data Science; Medical Humanities; Water UCI; Sustainability; Exercise Medicine & Sport Sciences; and Illuminations, the Arts & Culture Initiative.

“My experiences this past year,” Gillman said, “convince me that UCI is poised to rise higher in the ranks of those global institutions of higher education whose preeminence is undisputed because they are viewed as making the very best and most important contributions to knowledge creation, education, arts and culture, clinical and professional practice, and human well-being.”

Those values of optimism, innovation and excellence have always been shared by UCI’s dynamic student population, now numbering more than 30,000. And this fall’s newcomers – drawn from a record 82,615 applicants – are primed to follow suit.

Eighty percent of these freshmen are California residents, with 20 percent from out of state or around the globe, demonstrating a growing national and international interest in UCI. They also reflect the campus’s diversity – 38 percent of in-state freshmen are from underrepresented minority groups: 3 percent are African American, compared with 2.6 percent last year, and 28.9 percent are Latino, compared with 25.9 percent last year.

Nearly 36 percent of freshmen are from low-income backgrounds, a testament to the University of California’s commitment to accessibility – as demonstrated by aid programs such as the Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan – and the availability of federal and state assistance.

These talented and driven students are entering college at a time when the nation’s and world’s challenges – from political gridlock and underemployment to overpopulation and the damaging effects of climate change – seem almost too difficult to solve.

But Obama, during his commencement address, provided hope they can draw upon in the coming years: “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.”

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