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First Lady Thrusts UC Merced into National Headlines

April 2, 2009

The March 27 White House announcement that First Lady Michelle Obama had accepted the UC Merced Class of 2009’s invitation to speak at Commencement on May 16 has made headlines throughout the nation.

UC Merced students actively sought out the First Lady as commencement speaker by writing letters to Mrs. Obama, her office, and her friends and family.

This is a coup for UC Merced’s first full graduating class,” said senior Yaasha Sabba, who is also president of the Associated Students of UC Merced. “Mrs. Obama has validated the efforts and ambitions of our student body.”

About 500 students from the Class of 2009 are expected to participate in Commencement. The First Lady’s decision to address graduates has made planning the event a little more complex for the university. Though final decisions have yet to be made, university officials have said the event will need to begin in the afternoon to accommodate Mrs. Obama’s schedule.

Tickets will be required to attend Commencement, with priority given to graduates and their families. However, there is no plan to charge fees for admission.

This is big news for a community that has previously been known only as the epicenter of the U.S. foreclosure crisis,” said university spokeswoman Tonya Luiz, referring to a Bloomberg news report published in February. “It’s exciting to see Merced make headlines for such a positive student-driven initiative.”

Sabba agrees, adding that the economic crunch in the San Joaquin Valley was a driving force behind student efforts to invite Mrs. Obama to campus.

The Valley, in many ways, represents the small communities of America,” he said in a release issued by the student government in February. “Its health care, poverty and housing problems have been exacerbated by the economic crisis. First Lady Obama offers a message of hope and change, as well as the assurance that we are all in this together.”

To coax Mrs. Obama to consider their invitation, UC Merced students sent more than 900 hand-written valentines to the first lady and personal letters from friends, family members and other supporters. The students even wrote to Dr. Charles Ogletree Jr., a Merced native who mentored both President and Mrs. Obama while they attended Harvard. Ogletree was the keynote speaker for UC Merced’s Convocation in September 2005, and the winner of the university’s first Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.

To date, UC Merced is the only university commencement where Mrs. Obama will speak.

“Having the First Lady with us to celebrate our students’ accomplishments will be a great honor for all of us at UC Merced,” said Chancellor Steve Kang in a prepared statement issued by the university late last week. “I heartily congratulate our students who have actively spearheaded the initiative to secure Mrs. Obama’s participation in the graduation ceremony of our first full senior class. This is a true testament of the founding class’ vision, hard work and can-do attitude that will take them far in life.”

UC Merced has a history of success with grassroots lobbying efforts. Merced-area elementary school students mailed hundreds of handwritten letters to UC Regents, imploring them to consider the community as a potential home for the 10th campus University of California campus.

That letter-writing campaign has long been credited for contributing to the decision to build the first 21st century American research university in Merced – and for creating the culture of ambition and innovation that has become a hallmark of the university since it opened in September 2005.

To read what the media has to say about the Class of 2009’s ambitious endeavor and success, visit the following links:

Fresno Bee Editorial: First Lady Michelle Obama Graces UC Merced

Associated Press: Weeks of Wooing First Lady Pay Off for a New University

NBC San Diego: Michelle Obama to Address UC Merced's First Class

Merced Sun-Star Editorial: Names & Faces: Pay Attention Class

Merced Sun-Star: Michelle Obama Agrees to Speak at UC-Merced's Graduation

Chicago Sun-Times: Michelle Obama To Give UC Merced Commencement Speech

Los Angeles Times: <a title=”blocked:: Lady Michelle Obama to speak at UC Merced graduation href=>First Lady Michelle Obama to Speak at UC Merced Graduation

KSEE 24 NBC TV (Fresno): First Lady to be Commencement Speaker at UC Merced