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.

By , Staff writer

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    Efferman Ezzel (l.) and Yaasha Sabba, two University of California, Merced seniors, started a campaign that led to Michelle Obama agreeing to speak at their graduation on Saturday.
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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.

“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.

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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.

Michelle's transformation

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.

Why Merced?

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.

“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.”

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