Plenty of details to resolve before first lady's commencement address at UC Merced

Time of graduation is moved up; now everyone wants to be there.

April 11, 2009 

Preparations for this year's graduation ceremony at UC Merced are in overdrive, with just over one month before first lady Michelle Obama will deliver the keynote address to the university's inaugural class.

"We're working on programs, we're working on location, finding enough chairs, events before the graduation, after the graduation, all the details," said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs.

Interest in the ceremony has grown so staggeringly that a phone number listed on the UC Merced Web site for student tickets had to be rerouted from the chancellor's office to the main switchboard.

For the first time, UC Merced is printing tickets for the event -- 9,000 of them.

Campus organizers were originally expecting about 2,000 spectators this year.

"Four years ago, we graduated three people," Lawrence said. "This year we are graduating 500. Then, as you probably have heard, we have a keynote speaker that has attracted a little bit of attention."

All that attention has caused a bit of a headache for some of the graduating students.

Nick Nakamura led a letter-writing campaign in his fraternity, Sigma Chi, for the "Dear Michelle" campaign.

Now the 21-year-old senior and his family are waiting to see if they will get any tickets in addition to the eight promised to each graduating student. Nakamura had planned to invite 15 members of his family from San Diego, Los Angeles and Colorado.

Even though his family has already reserved more hotel rooms than they may be able to deal with, "I'm more or less just disappointed that previous UC Merced graduations were open, and this one will have to be ticketed," Nakamura said.

Other families said that the change in time for the ceremony has caused financial strain. (Obama requested an earlier ceremony when she accepted the invitation to be home with her daughters before the president leaves on a trip the next morning, UC officials said.)

"I actually felt that I was waiting sort of dangerously long because I didn't start looking for a flight out there until mid-March," said Murray Miles, the father of a graduating senior.

Miles originally planned to fly into San Francisco from Sarasota, Fla., on the morning of the ceremony.

Now his daughter won't be able to pick him up from the airport at 11 a.m. and make it to the ceremony in time, so Miles must fly in on Friday, the day before the ceremony.

"I am going to have to eat it," Miles said of the cost of the plane ticket.

"It would have been one thing to move it up just an hour. Pretty much everyone can deal with that. But to move it up six hours?" Miles asked.

His daughter, MaryCharlotte, said she finds the sudden change in plans distressing.

"To me, the important people are my family," she said. "I just hope everything goes smoothly and that everybody realizes this is a really big deal for us. We are the inaugural class, and we've been working really hard."

Campus officials and some student leaders acknowledge that luring a speaker with as spectacular a profile as the first lady required some changes in their plans. But they strongly believe the positive publicity stemming from Michelle Obama's visit will benefit the university in untold ways for a long time.

"I am starting to just question a little bit how much of an emphasis is on the graduating class (now)," said graduating senior Matt Siordia. "After a few years, it will reach a balance where we are known as the class that brought this big speaker here."

Outgoing student body president Yaasha Sabba is on the campus graduation steering committee. He's trying to make sure that events and programs unfold as smoothly as they can.

"Students have been coming up to us. All of the student concerns will be addressed," he said. "We want to make sure that the commencement is a great moment for the whole university."

It was unclear Friday afternoon how much the changes to the ceremony will cost the university.

UC Merced will graduate its first full senior class at 1:30 p.m. May 16, which is a Saturday.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.