Seniors at the University of California, Merced couldn’t rely on a wealthy and established network of alumni to reel in a famous speaker for this year’s commencement address.
That’s because the UC system’s newest campus has yet to graduate a full senior class and only has a handful of alumni.
But that didn’t keep this year’s seniors from landing one of the most sought-after speakers of the season, first lady Michelle Obama.
Since February, the 430-member founding undergraduate class has organized a nonstop campaign to draw the first lady to the campus in the heart of California’s Central Valley, bombarding her office with letters, emails – even hundreds of Valentine’s cards.
It set up a Facebook page to attract attention and help direct students’ efforts. By Friday, the Facebook page for “The ‘Dear Michelle’ Campaign” had more than 540 members.
The campaign included pleas from students, faculty and local residents. One student even recruited more than a dozen family members to send letters of support, said Semonti Mustaphi, the first lady’s deputy press secretary.
“Mrs. Obama was touched,” Mustaphi said Friday, after the first lady announced she would speak at UC Merced’s May 16 commencement. “She’s very committed and connected to these young people’s drive and wants to recognize the leadership that they’ve already exhibited.”
Student organizers acknowledged their effort was a long shot when they began.
Surrounded by orchards and vineyards, UC Merced sits far from the spotlight of its sister campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley. Many of its students are the first in their families to attend college.
“We had been watching her speeches and found them incredibly inspiring, and we just wanted to hear her in person,” said Sam Fong, a 22-year-old business major from the San Francisco Bay area city of Fremont who set up the group’s Facebook page. “I’m not sure what it was, but something inside me was really confident that she would respond to our efforts and our passion would show through.”
Yaasha Sabbaghian, the student body president, said being a part of the fledgling campus’ first class had helped him develop a sense of leadership, which he felt would resonate with Mrs. Obama.
As he and other students mused over how to attract her to the graduation, he hit on another selling point: the diversity of UC Merced’s student body mirrored that of the Obama administration.
Students also reached out to Charles Ogletree, a native of Merced who is now a Harvard law professor and mentored both Obamas when they attended the school.
University spokeswoman Patti Istas said campus officials were “absolutely thrilled” when they learned the first lady had accepted the invitation, especially since administrators had cautioned students to develop a backup plan.
“This is a true testament of the founding class’ vision, hard work and can-do attitude that will take them far in life,” said Chancellor Steve Kang, who will participate in the ceremony.
University of California President Mark Yudof and members of the UC Board of Regents also plan to attend.
The campus, which opened in 2005, eventually is to house up to 25,000 students and 6,000 faculty. It now has 2,700 students and 162 faculty members.
The first lady will give another graduation speech to students at Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School in the District of Columbia on June 3.
The president plans to speak at Arizona State University on May 13, the University of Notre Dame on May 17 and the United States Naval Academy on May 22.