MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) – Graduates of Wesleyan University enthusiastically greeted commencement speaker Barack Obama who urged students and thousands of onlookers to embrace idealism and enter public service.

“It was more than I imagined it to be” said graduate Emma Komlos-Hrobsky from Boulder, Colo. “I’m definitely an Obama supporter, especially after today.”

Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, stepped in for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who withdrew last week after he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.

With his presidential campaign emphasizing change and appealing to young people, Obama found a receptive audience at Wesleyan University.

Wesleyan conferred 737 undergraduate degrees and 120 graduate degrees Sunday. About 10,000 people attended the ceremony on a sun-drenched field and another 5,000 watched nearby.

I couldn’t have asked for a better graduation,” said Rebecca Dorey-Stein, a graduate from Narberth, Pa., who was got the chance to shake the Illinois Democrat’s hand.

“I didn’t realize he was around the corner,” she said. “It was a nice surprise when you turned around.”

Obama used his speech to draw upon the Kennedy legacy. He cited John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech urging Americans to ask what they can do for their country.

the Peace Corps and New York Sen. Robert Kennedy’s message that people can create “ripples of hope.”

Obama, who leads in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he and Kennedy talked last week about Obama delivering the speech. Kennedy has endorsed Obama in the nominating contest against fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and has campaigned for him.

Cedric Bien, of Concord, Mass., said he was looking forward to listening to Kennedy on Sunday because he’s a constituent of the Massachusetts Democrat. But Obama’s presence was just as good, adding tremendous excitement to an already memorable day, he said.

“At times, I almost forgot we were actually graduating,” he said. “He’s almost like a rock star.”

AP-ES-05-25-08 1544EDT

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