A grass-roots campaign by UC Merced students to bring first lady Michelle Obama to campus has paid off.
Obama will deliver the keynote speech at the graduation of the first four-year class at the university, the White House confirmed Friday morning.
Efferman Ezell, who is graduating this year with a degree in psychology, organized the "Dear Michelle" campaign with other student leaders a few weeks after the presidential inauguration.
The group sent more than 900 handwritten Valentine's Day cards, created a YouTube video and wrote personal letters to the Obama family's inner circle.
Ezell said he found out that the student proposal was being considered a couple weeks ago when the White House contacted the student government office's main phone number.
Given their busy student schedules, no one from UC Merced got back to Obama's office until Desiree Rogers happened to call back when Ezell was in the office.
"They said they got the letter, thank you, and that they would see what they could do," he remembered. "I was so excited, I forgot to ask for (the caller's) name."
He got that bit of information later when Rogers, the White House social secretary, called Ezell's cell phone. He didn't answer then either, because the number popped up as "unknown" and he was giving prospective students a tour of the 104-acre campus. Rogers left a message, Ezell said.
He now laughs at the thought that he missed so many phone calls from the White House, but the gravity of the situation doesn't escape him.
"It's going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It will be different for everybody," Ezell said. "Words can't really explain it. It really is a great feeling."
The students had other campaign events in mind, including a plan to break world records and then dedicate the feats to Michelle Obama. Those plans never got off the ground because Ezell never dreamed the student organizers would hear back so quickly.
"We were all touched by the students' campaign," Semonti Mustaphi, the first lady's deputy press secretary, said Friday. "It was very sweet."
Mustaphi estimated the first lady's office has, so far, received roughly 50 letters as part of the UC Merced campaign. These included letters sent by students as well as from the students' family members.
Because of security precautions that include irradiating letters, Mustaphi added that the first lady's office may not yet have received all of the letters that were sent.
Mustaphi declined to say how many other commencement speech invitations were received.
"This does go along with Mrs. Obama's background," Mustaphi said. "She really likes to connect with students who are passionate."
The fact that the UC Merced class of 2009 is the first full class to graduate from the new university was another part of the appeal, Mustaphi added.
"The first lady is looking forward to speaking to students and their families who have worked so hard to achieve this milestone," Mustaphi said.
A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Michelle Obama formerly worked for the University of Chicago and with a Chicago program that prepares youth for public service.
Mustaphi added that "the date is still a little far out" for the first lady's office to know whether she will be doing other Merced events beyond delivering the commencement address.
The first lady has been confirmed for one other commencement address this year at Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter, in Washington D.C., Mustaphi said.