Arizona State Preps for Obama's Commencement Visit

More than 70,000 expected to brave heat in open-air stadium.

ByABC News
May 12, 2009, 12:12 PM

TEMPE, Ariz., May 12, 2009 -- President Barack Obama will address the largest crowd since his inauguration Wednesday at Arizona State University's commencement.

About 71,000 people are expected to brave long lines in 99-degree heat to attend the open-air ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium.

Anticipation for the graduation reached fever pitch this week. Crews spent the past few days building the stage and setting up signs for the big event, a spectacle of mariachi music, Native American performances and marching bands. Rock icon Alice Cooper will be the opening act.

But for graduates facing a bleak job market, Obama's speech remains the major draw. Arizona native Alex Linden, 22, an English major, said she's looking forward to hearing a message of hope.

"President Barack Obama giving my commencement speech seems like the perfect cap to my ASU experience," Linden said. "I expect his speech, in typical Obama style, to be riveting and full of the ability to spark excitement and a sense of accomplishment."

Having a sitting president speak at commencement posed significant logistical hurdles for ASU. The frenzy for tickets began as soon as the college announced its speaker in March. Ads for graduation tickets appeared on Craigslist and eBay, with sale prices ranging from $50 to $300.

But Vicki Pounders, 60, who is attending the ceremony to watch her son David earn his degree, said she wouldn't dream of selling her ticket.

"I'm just absolutely thrilled," Pounders said. "I'm excited to see my son graduate, but I can't wait to hear the president speak. I'm hoping he'll give these graduates some positive words."

Officials from Craigslist worked with the university and agreed to remove all ads offering commencement tickets for sale. According to the university website, students can give tickets away, but any tickets found to be sold will not be valid at the gate.

Yet another controversy erupted when ASU decided not to give the president an honorary degree. ASU officials initially said university policy prevented them from awarding degrees to sitting politicians.

Within days, ASU president Michael Crow announced the President Barack Obama Scholars Program for incoming freshmen. Crow is expected to recognize the five students selected for the scholarships after the president delivers his speech.

Still, the ASU storm paled in comparison to the commotion surrounding Obama's invitation to address Notre Dame's graduating class on Sunday, May 17. The Catholic university took heat from some bishops and alumni for inviting a pro-choice president who supports stem cell research.

Festivities get underway at 5 p.m., with performances by The Phoenix Indian Center Navajo Singing Group, and ASU's hip hop, mariachi and gospel choir. Cooper will perform with Runaway Phoenix, his son Dash's band.

The president is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. With the number of people expected to attend increasing by the day, safety is a major issue.

ASU Police Commander Jim Hardina said the main concern is Mother Nature, as the forecast predicts temperatures as high as 99 degrees.