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First Lady Speaking at UC Merced

by Indy, published

What happens when you combine digital-native college seniors with a tech savvy White House and a dash of "si, se puede" determination?

You wind up with first lady Michelle Obama delivering the commencement address to the 450 members of the University of California, Merced's first four-year class.

It's quite a coup for the 2,700-student university. Obama snubbed the heavy weights, including that UC campus in Los Angeles, in favor of the Central Valley newcomer. The New York Times reports it will be her only stop on the college commencement circuit. Her only other appearance will be at a Washington, D.C., high school.

"While we were working on this campaign, many people told us that it was impossible, that Michelle Obama would never come to UC Merced," student Sam Fong, one of a group of students who spearheaded the effort to convince Obama, said in a UC Merced news release. "But our team worked hard, believing all along that the first lady would respond to our efforts and our passion. Now, our efforts have paid off, and we are all tremendously excited for Mrs. Obama to come to UC Merced!"

But these students know the Internet and know how to use it. The campaign included a 635-member strong Facebook group, backing of the student government that featured a letter template on its Web page, a video produced entirely by students and posted on YouTube and, for an old-fashioned touch, 900 Valentines sent by snail mail.

It didn't hurt to have friends with connections. The students also turned to Merced native and Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. He's mentored both Obamas and has never forgotten his hometown, returning to give the keynote speech when the university opened in 2005.

Not a bad marketing campaign for a university whose business school hasn't even opened yet.

The result: Merced will be the place to be in California May 16. Obama made it official last Friday.

The speech will come just days before the beginnings of UC Merced are old enough to drink. It was May 19, 1988 that the UC Regents voted to create a Central Valley campus. Merced was picked as the site seven years later.

The town needed it: Nearby Castle Force Base closed that same year, taking 6,000 military and civilian personnel and a $225 million contribution to the local economy with it.

The university still faced a battle, as local environmentalists filed several lawsuits to try to stop construction on sensitive wetlands that are home a fraction of the year to the tiny but endangered fairy shrimp.

It faced political battles as well, its opening delayed a year when Sacramento scrimped on funding.

It continues to battle for students, drawing less than half the applicants this year as the ninth-most popular UC, Riverside.

The town, meanwhile, is battling an unemployment rate teetering toward 20 percent and median home prices that have fallen from $382,000 to $105,000 in less than three years.

Many of the almost 3,000 enrolled at UC Merced view it not as a battle, but as a chance to be a part of creating something. The small size is not a drawback but an attribute, allowing them better access to professors and research opportunities not usually afforded undergrads.

It was that pioneering spirit that appealed to Obama.

"The first lady is looking forward to speaking to students and their families who have worked so hard to achieve this milestone," deputy press secretary Semonti Mustaphi told the Merced Sun-Star.

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