When graduating seniors of the tiny University of California, Merced decided to ask First Lady Michelle Obama to speak at their commencement, it seemed like a long shot – at best. But not only did Obama accept the invitation, her appearance Saturday marks her only college stop during this season’s circuit of commencement exercises. It has thrust a national spotlight on UC Merced, which enrolls 2,700 students, 70 percent of them minority, and open only since 2005.
“It’s icing on the cake,” says Efferman Ezell, one of the students who spearheaded the effort to lure the first lady. “We never thought we would be the only school (Obama) picked.”
Students decided to approach the first lady, rather than the president, Ezell says, “because we wanted him to focus on the economy.” Ezell and his classmates launched a “Dear Michelle” campaign that included a YouTube video and Facebook page. They also ordered custom-made Valentine’s Day cards in which they wrote personal messages. About 900 cards were sent to the White House.
In announcing Michelle Obama’s forthcoming speech, her spokeswoman told the Merced Sun-Star that the first lady “was touched” by the campaign, adding that part of the appeal lay in the fact that this is UC Merced’s first full graduating class. In June, Obama is slated to address high school graduates of the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter.
UC Merced sits in the San Joaquin Valley about 120 miles southeast of San Francisco. The city of Merced, population 80,000, has drawn news headlines in recent months for high rates of unemployment and home foreclosures.
The campus targets California’s underserved central valley. In 2006, the second year of operation, 43 percent of UC Merced freshmen came from families with an annual income of $40,000 or less; 50 percent were first-generation college-goers. About 40 percent were Latino, Black or American Indian, and 37 percent came from the central valley.
The students’ successful courtship of Obama has resulted in officials scrambling to accommodate what was originally envisioned as an event for only 3,200 people, says university spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas. Because of high interest surrounding the first lady, officials now expect a crowd of about 12,000 on Saturday, including 500 graduates. As a fledgling campus, Merced does not even have enough seating for such a crowd, so chairs and related items have been rented in recent days.
News media interest has been high, Istas says, including an inquiry from the BBC.
Ezell says that, while he and other graduates remain excited, they occasionally worry that the avalanche of attention on their keynote speaker may overshadow commencement itself. “Michelle Obama is a part of the experience, but she’s not the experience.”
The pursuit of Obama has featured humorous moments, too, such as instances when Ezell has unwittingly shunted White House calls to voicemail because his cell phone’s screen showed the caller’s number was blocked.
University chancellor Dr. Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang, who sent a letter to the White House endorsing the students’ pursuit, issued a press release praising student efforts as “a true testament of the founding class’ vision, hard work and can-do attitude that will take them far in life.”
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