U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has given her first commencement address, to graduates of a university that did not exist four years ago. President Barack Obama's wife responded to a blizzard of requests from some very persistent students.
It started with a very unusual campaign. Through an internet video, students at the University of California at Merced appealed to Mrs. Obama to speak to their school's first graduating class. They also sent huge numbers of letters and Valentine's Day cards to the first lady's office.
It worked. Mrs. Obama made her debut as a commencement speaker Saturday. In an address to the university's first full graduating class, she paid tribute to their effort. "You inspired me. You touched me. There are few things that are more rewarding than to watch young people recognize that they have the power to make their dreams come true, and you did just that," she said.
UC-Merced is the newest and smallest of the ten campuses in the enormous University of California system. The campus opened in 2005, on a piece of land in central California that was home to more cows than students. Mrs. Obama urged Saturday's graduates to serve their community. "You are the hope of Merced and of this nation. Be the realization of our dreams and the hope for the next generation. We believe in you," she said.
Unemployment in Merced County tops 20 percent, and the area has been hit by drought and real estate foreclosures. Local officials estimate that Mrs. Obama's visit has brought 25,000 visitors to the small town of Merced, generating more than $1 million. Two giant video screens were set up in the town, so those without tickets to the ceremony could watch it.
The enthusiasm that greeted Mrs. Obama in Merced contrasted with the ambivalence surrounding her husband's Sunday commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Some people at the Roman Catholic university oppose President Obama's visit because of his support for abortion rights.