MIDDLETOWN, CONN. — Snipers crouched on roofs and Secret Service agents patrolled the field as Wesleyan University's class of 2008 participated Sunday in a commencement ceremony few attendees are likely to forget.
Under a clear blue sky, Sen. Barack Obama stood before the 737 graduating seniors and 120 doctoral graduates. Thousands of visitors blanketing a hill overlooking the ceremony rose to their feet in applause. Many had no connection to the school, and no tickets, but they cheered along with Wesleyan families and friends.
"At a time of war, we need you to work for peace," Obama (D-Ill.) told the graduates. "At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again. That's your task, class of 2008."
Last week, no one here could have expected the graduation would turn into such a spectacle. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) had been the scheduled speaker. But when he was hospitalized last week -- and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor -- Obama, the Democratic presidential front-runner, was tapped to take his place.
As the news spread across campus Thursday via instant messaging, blog posts, texting, cellphone and Facebook, people began selling their commencement tickets on Craigslist for hundreds of dollars.
Visitors from across the country arrived, carting blankets, umbrellas, folding chairs and picnic lunches. A young man showed up in a Dukakis T-shirt, and others wore "Yes We Can" buttons. People lined up to snap photos next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Obama. Wesleyan officials estimated that there were 25,000 people in the crowd.
Graduates in red caps and gowns recorded the event on camera phones, amazed at the commotion surrounding a school that rarely receives national recognition.
"No other class is going to be able to live up" to this, said Tania Serrano, 22, who graduated in English and Latin American studies.
'Center of the world'
During the commencement ceremony, Obama passed along a message from Kennedy: " 'To all those praying for my return to good health, I offer my heartfelt thanks. And to any who'd rather have a different result, I say, don't get your hopes up just yet.' "
Kennedy's stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin, is in the 2008 graduating class, and his wife, Vicki, was in the audience. His son Edward Kennedy Jr. is among Wesleyan's alumni.
On Sunday, the university president, Michael Roth, presented Obama with an honorary degree. (Sen. Kennedy has one as well.)
Standing beneath a rainbow of fishtail flags, Obama told the graduates not to forget the world around them as they build careers and families.
"There's no community service requirement in the outside world, no one forcing you to care," Obama said. "You can take your diploma, walk off this stage and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should."
He continued, "But I hope you don't.
"Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story."
David Maryasin, 22, showed up at the ceremony with Obama's face and "HOPE" stenciled in gold spray paint on top of his cap and on the back of his gown. Throughout the day he flashed an O sign with his hands.
"He's our hero," Maryasin said. "For him to be here is an honor. It makes me feel like I'm at the center of the world."
Maryasin said that last week he had been hung over from a night of pre-graduation partying when his friends started calling him. One left a message, "Pick up the phone. . . . Jesus is speaking -- Jesus!"
Maryasin said he walked out his front door and saw the class president running down the street, shouting that Obama was coming.
Rashida Richardson, 21, the class president, said she found out via a text message and took off running as echoes of other students' screams floated across campus.
Richardson was the only student speaker Sunday. Before the ceremony, the social studies graduate paced, worrying about how her speech could possibly compare to Obama's. "I'll be on YouTube," she said, glancing at the thousands of people who showed up.
Minutes later, Richardson took the stage, a few feet from Obama. She laughed nervously and raced through her speech. At the end, she shouted a play on Obama's campaign slogan: "Wes, we can!"
Core of support
Methodist leaders and Middletown citizens founded Wesleyan in 1831, and its student body reflects many of Obama's core supporters: young, diverse and predominantly liberal. Since 2001, 164 of its graduates have joined the Peace Corps. The school offers a rich menu of clubs for students interested in race relations, politics, gender issues and environmentalism.
"I don't know of anybody who is an out-of-the-closet Hillary supporter," said William Franklin, a 21-year-old music and government student, referring to Obama's rival for the presidential nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Franklin said students who backed the presumed Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, "can get jumped for that."
Students say the school has a small but active Republican club.
Michael Sargen, 23, a graduate in biology, is a Clinton supporter who said he spent the year avoiding the Obama-mania that swept over his school. On Sunday, though, he couldn't help but get caught up in it.
"It's like a big rock star is coming to campus," Sargen said. "Ted Kennedy is great, but this makes it an even bigger event. I feel like I'm part of something historic."