Special to South Florida Times

When President Barack Obama visited Miami last Friday, few knew what was really on his mind. That morning he had signed an Executive Order authorizing the military to attack the home in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for launching the deadliest attack against America on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed close to 4,000 people.

The President was in South Florida to deliver the commencement address at the graduation of thousands of students of Miami Dade College, even as Operation Geronimo was swinging into high gear.

MDC students say it’s a lot to comprehend but their praise for Obama has taken an added dimension beyond the courtesy usually extended to a good speaker at graduation time.

Lauren Brown, 25, of Miami Lakes, said her admiration for the President was magnified because of his obvious commitment to students despite the enormity of the actions unfolding a world away.

“He could’ve been at the White House or anywhere else, handling a more important situation, but he took time out of his busy schedule, and he kept his promise because he had already committed to come to our graduation, so it was an honor,” Brown said in an interview on Monday, the day after U.S. Navy SEALS attacked bin Laden’s compound outside of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and killed him in what the military said was a firefight.

Juan Mendieta, the college’s director of communications, said he hoped the graduates all felt as Brown did.

“Now that all the information is out, students should really appreciate the fact that he delivered a wonderful speech and was actually at the graduation.  This could have easily changed and the President could have cancelled but he stuck to his promise to Miami Dade College students,” Mendieta said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Clearly, his heart was in the speech, he appeared in no way distracted, his passion was there. That speaks to the character of the man that is President Obama. He is grace under pressure.”

The President took to the stage at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami promptly at 7 p.m., after an already full day of activities, visiting tornado-ravaged Alabama and Cape Canaveral,  where he was joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters to watch a space shuttle launching but the flight was scrubbed due to mechanical concerns.

Upon being introduced, the 5,000-plus standing-room-only crowd at the commencement service greeted Obama like a rock star, with thunderous applause, whistles and chants of “Yes We Can!” recalling his 2008 campaign slogan.

During his roughly half-hour speech, Obama congratulated the diverse student population on making education a priority. He also touted the virtues of immigration reform.  He passionately spoke about his own father’s pursuit of an education, writing hundreds of letters to colleges and finally being accepted into the University of Hawaii, where he met his future wife.

The President told the students that he supports the Dream Act, pending legislation that would allow undocumented students who study in the U.S. and have good moral character to obtain legal status.  “It makes no sense to expel talented young people from our country. If they are trying to serve in our military or earn a degree, they are contributing to our country and we welcome those contributions,” Obama said.

MDC graduates represented 66 countries, many of them of Hispanic and Haitian origin.

The President was also bestowed with his first honorary associate’s degree by MDC President Eduardo Padron who also presented him with the school’s Presidential Medallion.

Latasha Alexander said Obama made commencement an extraordinary occasion for her and her fellow graduates.

“That was something amazing,” she said after the ceremony. “It was the best graduation I’ve ever been to – from the students, to President Obama, to the parents – it was the best. I loved it.”

Kolei McKinney, 26, agreed the night was historic.

“It was a historical moment that touched the hearts of many of us. It moved many of us in the room,” said the law enforcement major, moments after receiving his diploma in what he described as one of the best nights of his entire life.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at daphnetaylor_49@hotmail.com.