First Lady Speaking at UC Merced

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
.