Merced was not just the city where my university happened to be located. It was something completely different for me, coming from a coastal city in Southern California, but it was a welcome change.
There is a difference between the students who never really left home even when they physically moved to another place to attend college and those who made their new surroundings "home."
In 2008, I moved to Merced to attend the new university here, and the experiences I gained living in different places changed my outlook on why it's going to be hard to leave after graduation -- because I'm leaving home again.
The feeling that we as high school students had toward exploring the unknown and moving away to college is here again, with many of us having to relocate for even higher education or new jobs.
Not only is there the nervousness of uncertainty, but there is a general sadness at the thought of having to leave Merced behind. UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said recently to me as we discussed my future, "You never forget your undergraduate institution. It always holds a special place in your heart."
As a student who has made UC Merced and its community a home -- and a family -- I'm inclined to agree with her statement. Throughout my four years I have seen students love Merced, hate it, tolerate it and even leave it far earlier than they had to.
It is a hugely different experience when you make your college town your home. Speaking from experience as a lover of Merced and at some point just a "tolerator" of it, I can explain the difference.
When students live on campus there is an undeniable disconnect with the Merced community. It's difficult to get around the city freely and explore beyond the CatTrack bus stops, but it's not impossible.
As a freshman who lived in the dorms, my visits were mostly to Target and the Merced Mall, and I only occasionally made the pilgrimage to the downtown movie theater on a Saturday night. It was a bit more difficult to get acquainted with all the city had to offer.
When my fate took me to live off-campus, like almost all other students, I really began to explore Merced. It was a matter of feeling part of the community and looking beyond the obligations of the grocery store. Some of us decided to create homes for ourselves while we were here, not just houses that could sustain us until our next vacation -- when we could go "home" or back to our parents.
I treat myself to some inexpensive items at the Merced Antique Mall sometimes, but I mostly just go to peruse; I buy my produce at the Farmer's Market on weekends; I get my oil changed at the Honda dealership by the auto mall; I jog on the streets by Yosemite Avenue; and I pick up fresh bread frequently at a Mexican panaderia in town.
After students learn to expand beyond the borders of UC Merced -- and the requirements of your undergraduate program -- is when the real learning begins.
Even if students live on campus or off, if they interact only with the people or places that are expected for just their curriculum, they will not learn the true experience of living here and will never make Merced home.
It also goes beyond attending the events that are put on in the city to accommodate UC Merced students.
Making Merced home was not a difficult thing to do, and now it's another place I am sad to leave -- forcing me to deal with those consequences. But some students are anxious to leave and counting down to the day their rental agreements are up so they can pack up, take off, never look back.
So many of us who left our parents' homes had no idea where it was that we were going when we moved here.
But this has been home for the past four years. While I know it was a risky move to get attached to this town, it was one I'm happy I made.
The author is a senior in political science at the University of California at Merced.