UC Merced

Long-shot campaign paid off for UC Merced dreamers

***EDITORS  --  1st Pick***SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMESGraduating UC Merced senior Sam Fong stands on Main Street in downtown Merced after being interviewed by CNN on Thursday. Fong was one of three students who spearheaded the letter-writing campaign which persuaded first lady Michelle Obama to deliver tomorrow's commencement address.May 14th, 20
***EDITORS -- 1st Pick***SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMESGraduating UC Merced senior Sam Fong stands on Main Street in downtown Merced after being interviewed by CNN on Thursday. Fong was one of three students who spearheaded the letter-writing campaign which persuaded first lady Michelle Obama to deliver tomorrow's commencement address.May 14th, 20 Merced Sun-Star

They said it couldn't be done. That it was the longest of long shots.

But what started as a murmur has ended in a roar.

From the first days when a small band of students roamed campus looking for signatures to when they created a Facebook group to when they sat behind a plastic folding table on campus with a box of blank Valentine's Day cards...

Until today, when first lady Michelle Obama will finally address the first full four-year graduating class at UC Merced.

The grassroots campaign that first got ignored now has the world watching.

"We wanted it to be very special," said Sam Fong, one of the students credited with the campaign to court Obama.

"It's going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It will be different for everybody," the group's informal leader, Efferman Ezell, said the day the news became public. "Words can't really explain it. It really is a great feeling."

Ezell, Fong and Yaasha Sabba spent hours in the university library crafting personalized letters to big players in the Obamas' lives -- people such as Michelle Obama's brother and Charles Ogletree, Merced native and mentor to both Mr. and Mrs. Obama at Harvard Law School. (Ogletree delivered the keynote address at the campus' opening ceremony in 2005.)

They printed 2,000 Valentine's Day cards with a pearl-and-heart design. All of them were addressed by hand "to incorporate as many personal touches as possible," Sabba said.

More than 900 students wrote personal messages persuading Obama to accept the invitation.

Another 50 students lent their voices to a YouTube video called "We believe."

The students had other "Dear Michelle" 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 after the announcement in March. "It was very sweet."

For all the attention Fong, Ezell and Sabba have brought to the campus and community, some is coming back to them.

Each was given an award for their leadership at a campuswide awards ceremony last month.

And, of course, they brought about a day that will be forever remembered by thousands.

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

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