You might want to ask why I thought it was a good idea to make the five-hour drive to Merced, or why I thought it was cool to be up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday for press credentials, or why I didn’t chicken out after hearing I’d need to be on the field for three hours before the event even started, or why I didn’t turn back after sitting in the media pit, drinking hot water and watching my skin sizzle toward a third-degree burn.
And you’d be asking the same basic question everyone else is asking: Why Merced? Well, good old Michelle Obama’s got an answer for you.
“The answer is simple: You inspired me, you touched me,” she said to the 2009 class, in her first commencement address at UC Merced. “There are few things that are more rewarding than [watching] young people recognize that they have the power to make their dreams come true. And you did just that.”
My answer is pretty simple too; I’ll do anything for Mobama, the inspiring students of UCM, and of course, the sick White House press passes. Yes, I’m putting them on my wall. Judge me.
Another question you’ll definitely want the answer to is how the heck did she get here?
First off, let me just say that getting an Obama to come to your campus is not an easy task. The White House staff really knows how to ramp up the intimidation factor. Whether it’s the snipers on the rooftops, the bomb dogs, the personalized pat-downs and searches, the metal detectors or the Secret Service escorts, they know how to scare off the kids who don’t take their work seriously.
The students who brought the first lady to their campus sure know how to take their work seriously, and they know how to get things done on top of that. The team of students set to work early in the year, aiming for the highest of goals: bringing Michelle Obama to Merced.
Originally, the desire to improve the future of higher education in the Central Valley led the Merced community to campaign to the UC Board of Regents requesting that the newest UC campus be built in Merced. Just about every school-aged kid in the entire county sent a post card to the regents to convince them to choose Merced. Their efforts paid off, and in 2005 the new campus was built.
This year, the students of UCM and the Merced community used the same tactics to appeal to Michelle Obama and bring recognition to the valley. They sent thousands upon thousands of letters, made her over 900 valentines, and even created videos just for her. Getting the chills yet? Every time I hear the story I seriously want to cry. But then again, I cried during “You’ve Got Mail.”
Truthfully, the event was emotional for all the graduates, student team members who had worked to bring her there, and even Obama herself.
“It moved not just me but my entire staff,” she said. “They came up to me and said, ‘Michelle, you have to do this. You have to go here!’ ”
Even though there were hundreds of students involved in the campaign, Obama could only meet with 18 of the most dedicated students before the commencement ceremony. Those who got the opportunity to meet her were jumping out of their robes.
“It was so emotional. We were going in for a handshake and she gave us a hug … then I got to stand next to her when we took the photo and she squeezed my hand,” said 2009 graduate Jessica Julian after meeting Michelle. “And today is my birthday. This is the most amazing birthday ever!”
Julian and her classmate, Erika Amefi, both worked hard addressing and mailing the Valentine’s Day cards to Michelle. During the process, they hit a major snag: They were unable to print the addresses as planned.
Instead of giving up, the women, along with just a handful of others, hand-wrote both the return and recipient addresses on 900 Valentine’s Day cards. Let me just say that again: 900 hand-written return and recipient addresses. I’m pretty sure my hand cramps up when I just have to write the addresses on a birthday card.
Another student integral to the campaign was 19-year-old freshman David W.S. Cheng. He was recruited as the media director of the campaign and directed, wrote and animated a short film entitled “We Believe.”
“The origin of the video came from the values Michelle and Barack shared, the values of change, hope and peace,” Cheng said. “You can see [that] the video showed a lot of beliefs of the students on campus. It was designed to show her that we share a lot in common.”
Cheng said he had to recruit over 60 students to narrate the script. He spent another three weeks developing and animating the film. My immediate (stupid) question after this was whether or not he was studying film and planning to pursue a career in the film industry.
His short, heartbreaking answer was “No.” The young campus of Merced doesn’t have a film department; a kid this talented and ambitious can’t study what he loves.
Another stupid idea I had was that he might want to transfer. But no, these students don’t shy away from a challenge. In fact, they search for it. After remarking on his undeclared status, he quickly added that he’s waiting to develop a film department. Yeah, he’s developing a new department at UCM. I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry, I tried to call his bluff, but he’s totally legit. He went on to explain how he’s in talks with faculty and staff on topics like the funding and planning involved in developing the department.
These students know that there are absolutely no limits to what they can do, and they have whole-heartedly embraced that idea. Six years ago the stage for commencement was a golf course; four years ago, students could walk out of the library to pet a cow during a study break. Today, Obama’s visit is a testament to the ever-expanding campus and the inspiring story behind the Merced community.
Obama said it best when she said that these students represent hope.
“You are the hope of Merced and of this nation, and [you will] be the realization of our dreams and the hope for the next generation. We believe in you. Thank you so much, and good luck. God bless you all,” Obama said.
These kids are amazing, and Obama’s presence on their campus has allowed the rest of the nation to see that. Now we’ll just have to wait and see who they get to come out next year.
Filed Under: Features