MERCED, CALIF. — They were the trailblazers, this first full class about to graduate from the University of California, Merced. And like most pioneers, they had to create their own traditions amid adversity and attrition.
When they arrived as freshmen in the fall of 2005, classroom buildings weren't ready on the fledgling campus, a former golf course surrounded by cow pastures in the San Joaquin Valley. For more than a year, classes met in the library and dorm lounges; sometimes, because of construction, the only access was by fire escape.
"I think it takes a certain kind of person to go to a school where there is nothing and start something," said Kim Wilder, an English major from Brea who is among an expected 320 students -- less than half those who started as freshmen -- who will graduate on Saturday. Twenty-one others finished early, 110 are continuing and about 250 transferred or dropped out.
Wilder, 22, said the opportunity to be part of something new, along with small classes and the chance to work with faculty on research, kept her and many classmates at Merced. "Of course, we grumbled and complained now and then," she said. "But for the most part, people got behind the idea that if we stuck it out, it would feel a little more normal."
Merced, the first new UC campus in four decades, is more normal now, with 2,700 students, 120 full-time professors and three major academic buildings around a grassy quad with views of the Sierra Nevada. It is also about to be celebrated on a national platform.
Merced's seniors decided they wanted First Lady Michelle Obama as their commencement speaker and pursued her through a lobbying campaign featuring 900 valentine cards, a video that declared "Dear Michelle, We Believe in You" and the pulling of every possible political string between Central California and Washington, D.C.
To the surprise of UC administrators, Obama accepted. Her spokesperson said the first lady was touched by the students' efforts and their inaugural class status. Suddenly, what would have been a low-key ceremony may cost as much as $700,000 for such expenses as Jumbotron screens and extra security, although campus officials hope donations will offset some of the total.
Faculty and administrators attribute the Obama visit to the can-do spirit of a graduating class that learned to rely on itself. They also hope the attention will boost UC Merced's profile and its freshman applications, which dropped slightly this year and were less than half that of UC Riverside, which typically trails the other UC campuses. And they want state funding to help the Merced campus grow to 12,000 students over the next decade and eventually to about 25,000.
"A lot of high school students hear about UC Merced and may not know the opportunities we have here. Too many may think it's a start-up, too new or too much of a risk," said Yaasha Sabbaghian, a former student body president who helped lead the "Dear Michelle" campaign.
Merced's high-profile visitor "will shine a limelight on us and show we are respected," said Sabbaghian, a biology major from San Mateo who said he received an excellent education and is considering law school.
The founding students' dogged spirit showed in the way they persisted in their educations and established 75 campus organizations, without older students paving the way, said Charles Nies, associate vice chancellor for student affairs.
"They created stuff and asked, 'Why do we have to do it that way, why can't we do it differently?' " Nies remembered. And though that could be frustrating some days, it was also valuable, he said: "That's what we are training our students to do -- to go out there, challenge all the processes and find new ways to do things."
Students who launched the first fraternities and sororities did so in an unusual way. Traditionally, national Greek organizations visit a campus to recruit. Instead, UC Merced students researched the clubs and invited only those with values and customs they liked, Nies said.
One campus group allied itself with Kappa Kappa Gamma because it was among the first sororities in the nation, founded in 1870 at Illinois' Monmouth College, said UC Merced senior Katie Murray, one of the organizers. "We felt the founding women of that sorority related to us in so many ways," said Murray, 21, a psychology major from Novato.
Four years ago, Murray was rejected by UC Santa Barbara; like many in the graduating class, she received an unexpected invitation to enroll at what became the 10th UC campus.
She accepted, despite warnings from friends at other colleges who said UC Merced might be "a joke school." Now, she said proudly, "I feel I have had a chance and choice to make a difference instead of just being a face in the crowd."