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A campus – and a whole town – await the first lady

The recession-hit town of Merced and its University of California campus hope for a big boost from Michelle Obama’s commencement speech Saturday.

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Efferman Ezzel (l.) and Yaasha Sabba, two University of California, Merced seniors, started a campaign that led to Michelle Obama agreeing to speak at their graduation on Saturday.

Michael B. Farrell/ The Christian Science Monitor

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The anticipation on the University of California, Merced campus is tempered only by anxiety over final exams. Students, teachers, and administrators are agog as they watch their young campus being spiffed up for Michelle Obama’s arrival this weekend.

“You notice there’s this vibe of happiness and excitement on campus. Everyone wants to be a part of it,” says Yaasha Sabba, a senior who was instrumental in the student-driven campaign to persuade the first lady to deliver the commencement address at UC Merced’s inaugural graduation.

Through the afternoon, the sun-beaten school, which opened just four years ago, was busy with workers setting up rented white chairs in an open-air amphitheater that had been freshly sodded. Technicians tested metal detectors, sound engineers set up speakers, and students captured the preparations on their cellphone cameras.

Saturday’s speech promises to be a boost for the small university – with just 2,700 students, it is an underdog in the UC system – giving it the sort of positive attention it could never buy. It’s also a boon for the city of Merced, which has been hit harder than most in the economic downturn.

City officials expect that it will bring 25,000 people to town who will spend more than $1 million at area businesses. For Merced this is "the World Cup, World Series, and the Super Bowl all wrapped into one,” says Mike Conway, city spokesman.

Michelle's transformation

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