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Sunday, August 09, 2009

And then Michelle Obama visited Merced

When the UC Merced Class of 2009 set its sights on having First Lady Michelle Obama deliver the keynote address at the university's commencement celebration for its inaugural class, I never thought in a million years that it would come to pass.

I stand corrected.

Mrs. Obama delivered an inspirational message to our graduates in May of this year, encouraging them to pay forward the blessings they had received so that others may have the same opportunities afforded to them. She talked about the daunting challenges that lie ahead for those entering the work force but reminded the 500-plus graduates that there were ample opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Her presence led about 12,000 people to brave the sweltering valley heat in order to catch a glimpse of her in person. Close to 20,000 people in all spent that day in Merced, some watching the commencement festivities from locations downtown or in the air-conditioned comfort of the homes of family and friends. Most local media outlets broadcast the event live on their Web sites. It was also broadcast on public-access cable television and on CNN.

As a public information officer for the university, I had the opportunity to coordinate media before the event and help journalists get the access they needed during the event. That meant that I, too, was bravely the 100-plus-degree weather and full sunshine. Anyone who thinks a journalist's job is glamorous hasn't been corralled in a press area without shade for hours.

Though I gave a lot of interviews in the weeks leading up to the First Lady's visit, my favorite interview came in the days after when Sam Matthews, publisher emeritus of the Tracy Press, called me up to see what I had to say about the experience. Never in all my years at the Press did I ever think I'd live to see the day when I was mentioned in Tracing Tracy Territory. I guess that makes me an official Tank Town veteran.

The experience of working with the White House is also one I won't soon forget. Politics aside, nobody can deny the fact that the Obama administration is highly accessible and gracious when it comes to working with others. I learned so much from the six short weeks we had to prepare for the event, and I am so much better for the experience.