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On the map

By Lester Holt, NBC News anchor

Driving into downtown Merced -- deep in California's central Valley -- my neck immediately began cranking for signs I was nearing a university campus. A coffee house, campus book store, music shop. Anything that said "college town." The last time I visited Merced, about ten years ago, the University of California at Merced didn't exist. This time the rental car GPS seemed to be pointing me straight through and then out of town. By the time I started passing empty fields and orchards I was sure I must have punched in the wrong address. Then suddenly as I crested the hill, there it was -- a small collection of stunning modern buildings surrounded by nothing. That was Thursday. Today, this little known 4 year old University, with an enrollment the size of a suburban high school and far removed from just about everything, is firmly on the map thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama. I traveled to Merced this week to learn the fascinating back story of how the students managed to land one of the most famous women in the world as their commencement speaker. The roughly 450 seniors graduating today represent U.C. Merced's first full graduating class, and they were determined to make a statement. They orchestrated a charming, creative and tenacious campaign that included everything from Valentines and e-mails sent to the White House to a You Tube video, all designed to convince Mrs. Obama to speak at their graduation. Over spring break they learned she had accepted. The best I can tell virtually every student and faculty member was in some way instrumental in the campaign, and so it is not just the class of 2009 celebrating success today. It may be a small school, but they think BIG. And isn't that what higher education is all about?

I'll have more on what went into bringing the first lady to Merced on our Nightly News broadcasts this weekend.