- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

MERCED, Calif. | First lady Michelle Obama praised graduating students Saturday at California’s smallest, youngest public university for their determination to succeed, urging them to give back to their communities.

In her debut as a commencement speaker, Mrs. Obama evoked the struggles of California’s founders - settlers and former slaves, trailblazers and immigrants - to encourage the 493 members of the school’s first full graduating class to use their newfound skills to lift up those around them.

“Many of you may be considering leaving town with your diploma in hand, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable,” Mrs. Obama said before a crowd of 12,000 in the afternoon sun. “By using what you’ve learned here you can shorten the path perhaps for kids who may not see a path at all. I was once one of those kids.”

Clothed in a long black robe and academic regalia, Mrs. Obama spoke of her own drive to get ahead despite tough odds, recounting the challenges her working-class family faced on Chicago’s South Side.

“You will face tough times. You will certainly have doubts, and let me tell you because I know I did when I was your age,” she said. “Remember that you are blessed. Remember that in exchange for those blessings, you must give something back. You must reach back and pull someone up. You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future.”

When students arrived at the University of California-Merced four years ago, there were more cow pastures than there were academic buildings in the outer reaches of Merced, about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Today the university boasts the highest percentage of first-generation college students and financially needy students, and one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the 10-campus public system.

Now that the jubilant members of the pioneer class have earned a degree, the first lady suggested they cement their legacy by starting after-school programs to help students succeed, working to reduce pollution or linking needy families to social services.

But many seniors were most touched by her recognition of their dogged efforts to woo her to the fledgling campus.

Students bombarded the first lady’s office with letters, e-mails and even hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards in a nonstop campaign to get her to speak at graduation.

One freshman holed up for weeks in his dorm room, making an animated video he would later post on YouTube called “We Believe in Michelle Obama.”

In closing her speech Saturday, the first lady returned the favor, saying simply: “We believe in you.”

That was enough to leave Yaasha Sabbaghian, the outgoing student body president who spearheaded the effort, speechless. He and 17 other students who organized the “The ‘Dear Michelle’ Campaign” were among the first to be embraced Saturday morning by the first lady.

“It was surreal. It was phenomenal,” said Mr. Sabbaghian, 22, a cellular biology major. “She said she wanted to come be with us on this one Saturday because of our strong efforts and because of never giving up. That’s what she really liked.”

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