SANTA CLARA -- Drawing cheers and a few guffaws as he delivered the commencement address Saturday at his alma mater, former CIA director and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Santa Clara University graduates not to despair about the country's troubles or conclude they have little chance of fixing them.
"Take it from me, you really can make a difference," he said. "The state of the nation, whether you like it or not, largely will depend on you."
A Monterey native who will turn 75 on June 28, Panetta earned a bachelor's degree and a law degree from the university in the 1960s and went on to spend most of his life in the federal government. Aside from his defense and intelligence agency jobs, he served as a Central Coast congressman and was director of the Office for Civil Rights and of the Office of Management and Budget.
Since leaving the Pentagon in February, he has returned to the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he and his wife, Sylvia, founded in 1997. And on Saturday, he implored the 1,000-plus graduates to work for the public good.
"I realize that there is a rising tide of distrust and cynicism" in the world, he said. But he added, "working together for others is the essence of what our democracy is about."
The message resonated with many of the students.
"It was a great speech," said 22-year-old Felicia Fregoso of Evergreen, Colo., who earned a bachelor of science degree and is interested in doing social work to help children. "It was very inspiring."
John Nash, a 22-year-old from Orinda who got a degree in communications and has landed a sales job at a company that helps employers find information technology specialists, agreed. Having labored through years of college, he especially took to heart Panetta's admonition to avoid being overly pessimistic.
"If you're not optimistic," Nash said, "what's the point of putting in the hard work?"
Panetta -- who with his wife received honorary doctorate-of-public-service degrees from the university -- triggered laughter when he joked about his social life at the school and how, after he was first elected to Congress in 1976, another lawmaker welcomed him by saying: "We don't do much on issues, but we eat good."
But Panetta mostly struck a serious tone. And he got his loudest cheers when he mentioned how the U.S., while he was head of the CIA, tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden.
"We made clear to the world," he said, "that nobody attacks the United States and gets away with it."
The event at the school's Buck Shaw Stadium, of course, wasn't just for the students. The place was packed with parents and friends, who came from across the country to holler with delight as the gowned graduates accepted their diplomas.
"My whole family is here," number 14 people, said Brooke Davis, a 22-year-old from Laguna Niguel who received a communications degree and hopes to do social media marketing. "I'm so excited."
So was 40-year-old Mariella Ponce. A single mom who teaches high school math in South Central Los Angeles, she was celebrating the achievement of her daughter, Danica McGuire, who got a degree in anthropology and who recently spent a couple summers in Costa Rica studying the vocalization patterns of howler monkeys.
Although Danica had a scholarship that covered her tuition, her room and board cost her mom about $15,000 a year.
But money was the last thing on her mind Saturday.
"I'm extremely proud, because I had her when I was 19," Ponce said. "So it was an accomplishment for both of us."