A campus – and a whole town – await the first lady
The recession-hit town of Merced and its University of California campus hope for a big boost from Michelle Obama’s commencement speech Saturday.
The anticipation on the University of California, Merced campus is tempered only by anxiety over final exams. Students, teachers, and administrators are agog as they watch their young campus being spiffed up for Michelle Obama’s arrival this weekend.Skip to next paragraph
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“You notice there’s this vibe of happiness and excitement on campus. Everyone wants to be a part of it,” says Yaasha Sabba, a senior who was instrumental in the student-driven campaign to persuade the first lady to deliver the commencement address at UC Merced’s inaugural graduation.
Through the afternoon, the sun-beaten school, which opened just four years ago, was busy with workers setting up rented white chairs in an open-air amphitheater that had been freshly sodded. Technicians tested metal detectors, sound engineers set up speakers, and students captured the preparations on their cellphone cameras.
Saturday’s speech promises to be a boost for the small university – with just 2,700 students, it is an underdog in the UC system – giving it the sort of positive attention it could never buy. It’s also a boon for the city of Merced, which has been hit harder than most in the economic downturn.
City officials expect that it will bring 25,000 people to town who will spend more than $1 million at area businesses. For Merced this is "the World Cup, World Series, and the Super Bowl all wrapped into one,” says Mike Conway, city spokesman.
But it will be a moment for Mrs. Obama, too, and not just because this will be her first national public address. While first ladies’ commencement speeches aren’t typically headline-grabbing events, this one may overturn that precedent. Obama is more popular than ever – a recent Gallup poll gave her a 79 percent approval rating, compared with 65 percent for her husband – something of a feat considering how recently she was stirring public unease. During last year’s election campaign, she was viewed by many with misgiving and her patriotism was often questioned, especially after she said it was the “first time” in her adult life she was proud of America.
The excitement in Merced reflects the broad appeal the first lady has achieved since her husband was elected president. Merced is not exactly a bastion of liberalism. While the county went for Obama in last fall’s presidential vote, it sided with George W. Bush in the previous two elections.
The rise in the first lady’s popularity, says Myra Gutin, a first lady historian and professor of communications at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., is in part because Obama’s advisers have done a skillful job of shaping her image and keeping her away from anything controversial. “She and the president have shown very much that they are of the people. She’s going out in the community in Washington, she planted the vegetable garden, and all those things have a cumulative effect,” says Ms. Gutin.
Gutin says she can’t know for sure why Obama, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, chose UC Merced, but suspects it’s because it fits within her own particular interests in education. “It seems to go along with the whole philosophy of change and trying to revitalize American education that the Obama administration has endorsed.”
Mr. Sabba, a molecular and cellular biology major who took his last exam Friday, isn’t sure why his university was picked, either. But he hopes it was because she recognized in the students’ tireless campaign to grab her attention that this school is a place where many people who may not have otherwise gone to college are finding success.