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Commencement Boosts Valley Economy,Builds Community, Focuses Nation on Student Success

July 2, 2009
Officials say First Lady's appearance raised public profile and stature of newest UC campus "by 10 years" at critical point in development

MERCED, Calif. — Despite a flurry of last-minute preparations and an unexpected increase in cost, First Lady Michelle Obama’s May 16 visit to the University of California, Merced, was a windfall for the regional economy, the university and the community as a whole, based on sales data, media coverage and informal feedback gathered over the past month.

“The immediate boost in local sales and service revenues, coupled with media coverage worth millions of dollars for the university, our graduates and our community, more than offset the increased cost of the expanded event,” said UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang.  “The net benefit appears to have been overwhelmingly positive.”

“Considering the revenue merchants saw in the weeks leading up to May 16, we can call Commencement 2009 a month-long economic stimulus package for the San Joaquin Valley,” said Mary Miller, the university’s vice chancellor for administration.

Commencement 2009, when UC Merced celebrated the graduation of its inaugural class, drew more than 12,000 people to campus and thousands more to downtown Merced for the city’s first-ever Cap & Town festival.

Billed as the “ultimate block party,” Cap & Town ‘09 was a two-day street fair that drew Merced residents and visitors to local business and afforded everyone the opportunity to enjoy the featured entertainment, activities and a live broadcast of the commencement ceremony from campus.

“The streets were packed downtown,” said city spokesman Mike Conway, who estimates about 10,000 people attended the festival.

All told, public officials have reported that Mrs. Obama’s visit brought more than $1 million to the Merced economy. But the effects of Mrs. Obama’s visit were felt far beyond the Merced County line. Hotels from Turlock to Chowchilla were sold out in the days leading up to the event, and hotels as far as Modesto and Fresno saw a sharp increase in occupancy rates.

In addition, nearly half of the university’s budget for the event involved the procurement of products and services from local businesses within five San Joaquin Valley counties - Fresno, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus. And 88 percent of the entire budget was spent in California.

A Sudden Change in Plans

The First Lady was wooed to UC Merced by a student-driven initiative known as the “Dear Michelle” Campaign.

Eighteen students, led by student government representatives Yaasha Sabba, Efferman Ezell and Sam Fong, launched a grassroots drive to get Mrs. Obama’s attention. The students kicked off the campaign in February by sending more than 900 hand-written valentines to the White House. That initial push was followed by a personal letter-writing drive and ended with a student-produced YouTube video named “We Believe.”

When the White House called on Mrs. Obama’s behalf to accept the students’ bold invitation on March 27, the university needed to act fast in altering its plans for the May 16 event.

University officials had originally planned for a modest ceremony that included about 3,200 graduates, relatives and guests assembled in the Carol Tomlinson-Keasey Quad.

Upon Mrs. Obama’s acceptance, interest among students, family members, faculty, staff, the public and media surged.  Demand for tickets skyrocketed - more than 12,000 tickets were eventually issued - and plans for an event site, seating, security, parking, transit and traffic control, A/V services, crowd management, food and beverage service, communications, emergency medical care, restrooms and other basic needs had to be expanded significantly on a short six-weeks’ notice.

Costs rose, too, from an originally estimated $100,000 for the smaller ceremony to a preliminary estimate of about $700,000. The final tally reflects a price tag of slightly more than $1 million. Private contributions of more than $185,000 (including in-kind-gifts) added to $500,000 in unrestricted interest earnings on a private endowment fund, managed by the UC Office of the President, have helped offset the cost of the event. The balance will be covered by non-state dollars from campus sources and offset by any additional donations that may be made.

“The incremental cost of hosting Mrs. Obama’s historic visit and sharing it as much as possible with the community will not be borne by the taxpayers,” Kang said.

Chancellor Kang, known for his pride in the young campus, says Mrs. Obama’s visit showed the world what he and others have known all along.

“Having the First Lady of the United States acknowledge the work and accomplishments of our inaugural class gives greater visibility to what our students, staff and faculty already know,” he said. “UC Merced is the home of big thinkers who know how to overcome major obstacles to get the job done.”

In her keynote address to the Class of 2009, Mrs. Obama spoke to the students’ bold campaign.

“You know, there are few things that are more rewarding than to watch young people recognize that they have the power to make their dreams come true,” she said.  “And you did just that.  Your perseverance and creativity were on full display in your efforts to bring me here to Merced for this wonderful occasion.”

Where to Put Everybody?

“As a new university, we did not have an existing facility that could accommodate the number of students, family members, faculty, staff, and members of the public interested in attending the commencement ceremony,” said Associate Chancellor and Chief of Staff Janet Young, who was responsible for arrangements for the event. “We needed to rapidly provide a site that would accommodate a much larger crowd due to the interest generated by the speech by the First Lady.”

The “South Bowl,” an area on campus the size of a football field, which has terracing on two sides, provided an existing location that could be converted most efficiently into a venue for the commencement ceremony and be able to serve the campus and community far into the future.

A Sound Investment

Campus officials believe the total cost of the event represents a long-term investment in UC Merced’s future.  Based on media coverage alone, the benefit to the newest and least-known UC campus is beyond calculation.  The event was carried live on several national television networks. Television coverage alone began several weeks prior to the event and continued for several days after the event. A simple Google search on the morning of May 18 showed more than 1,000 stories appeared that weekend in major media outlets around the globe.

“We jumped 10 years into the future when it comes to national and international visibility - and visibility is very important to a research university,” Kang said. “Millions of dollars in advertising could not have accomplished as much. Having the First Lady as our commencement speaker will prompt high-achieving students and talented, accomplished faculty and staff to learn more about UC Merced.”