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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.

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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.

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“More than half the university are first-generation [college students]. They are coming from families that can’t afford college or who don’t encourage college,” he says.

A spokeswoman for the first lady said it was because she was “touched” by the students’ efforts, which included a Valentine’s Day card campaign (they sent her 900 cards), a letter-writing drive (they mailed some 200 letters), a Facebook page, and a video.

One of the reasons the campus was opened here in the first place, says university spokeswoman Patti Istas, was to improve the historically low college enrollment rates in the San Joaquin Valley. When the school opened its doors, she says, there was one building and infrastructure for about 900 students. Today, about a third of the students are from the surrounding region.

Merced is a sleepy agricultural outpost of some 80,000 people and is known more for its economic woes than for celebrities or politicians. Merced County had the highest foreclosure rate in the state and unemployment climbed to 20.4 percent in March, among the highest in the nation.

“If you Googled Merced, everything was about foreclosures,” says Ms. Istas. “Rarely does the San Joaquin Valley get a chance to shine like this.”

Google Merced today and you’ll turn up headlines about Michelle Obama coming to town. It’s a moment Merced wants to savor. It is holding its own “Cap and Town” celebration in concert with the school's graduation. Many of the people who weren’t able get one of the 12,000 tickets for the commencement on campus can watch Obama’s address on a JumboTron downtown. They can also watch sumo wrestling performances or participate in human bowling.

The $700,000 price tag

The city has budgeted about $25,000 for the two-day celebration and is spending about $5,700 of that on the JumboTron. None of the money, says Mr. Conway, is from taxpayers. It’s being paid for by donations, he says.

The cost to UC Merced to host the first lady: $700,000. It's a price tag that has not come without criticism, especially as the state grapples with deep budgetary woes.

When the school learned that the students’ campaign to get Obama was a success, it quickly scraped the modest affair it had originally planned for about 3,500 people at a cost of $100,000. In less than two months, they hired landscapers to create a new amphitheater area, planned security measures to pass White House requirements, and rented a stage and equipment to accommodate parents and the press. UC Merced says it's also trying to find donations to make up for projects that were fast-tracked because of Obama's visit.

For UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang, the benefits seem to outweigh the cost. On Thursday afternoon, as he stood on a bridge spanning the irrigation canal and watched the preparations on campus, he pointed out that the university is getting a visibility it could never have imagined just four years after they opened.

As for Michelle Obama, she may be hoping that her speech goes over as well as another first lady commencement speech that landed on front pages everywhere.

When Barbara Bush spoke before Wellesley, the women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts, in 1990, she knew that she wasn’t the students’ first choice and that her presence had sparked quite a bit of controversy, says historian Gutin. But she ended up winning over the audience and brought down the house when she told the graduating class: “Who knows, somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse – and I wish him well.”