UC Merced

First Lady Michelle Obama to deliver UC Merced graduation speech

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.

Area lawmakers are also applauding Obama's decision to speak at the college.

"I'm very pleased the first lady is coming to Merced and I'm thrilled for the students and the university," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "It was clear when I contacted the White House that the students' efforts had made a significant impression. I'm sure Michelle will get one of the greatest and most appreciative welcomes she will have ever seen."

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.

Earlier this month, the Merced City Council passed a proclamation to throw its support behind the student organizers. Councilman Bill Spriggs said he also asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein to support the students' cause.

"UC Merced is rapidly becoming our crown jewel," Spriggs said. "This will really show off the campus and show off the university. It will cast the city in a good light as well."

On campus, UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang praised the student campaign.

"I heartily congratulate our students who have actively spearheaded the initiative to secure Mrs. Obama's participation in the graduation ceremony of our first full senior class," Kang said in a press release. "This is a true testament of the founding class' vision, hard work and can-do attitude that will take them far in life."

Student body president Yaasha Sabba said he was thrilled the event was finally confirmed.

"We've been searching her Web site and the news," Sabba said. "We found out this morning just like you."

Sabba, Ezell and a few others were at least expecting the official announcement. For other students, the news spread quickly.

"I just got a bunch of text messages," sophomore Nibal Halabi said. "Friends, people across the Central Valley."

Hilabi, president of the UC Merced Democrats club, said the first lady's trip to the tiny campus is a testament to the overwhelming spirit of its pioneering class.

"It finally puts us on the map," Hilabi said. "Regardless of how small our school is, we can work on something together and bring someone as big as Michelle Obama to our campus."

Hilabi said he was not sure if he would be able to hear the first lady speak since he is not among the 430 graduating students.

Still, "Who wouldn't want Michelle Obama to come to their community?" he said.

Transportation and hotel arrangements for the first lady have not been set for the Merced trip, Mustaphi said.

Michael Doyle from the McClatchy Washington Bureau and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

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