UC Merced to celebrate 10 years since its groundbreaking

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comOctober 23, 2012 

People in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly in Merced County, are starting to see the results of the seeds planted when the newest University of California campus broke ground a decade ago.

Local officials and community members say UC Merced is living up to the promise of change many expected it to foster, but they acknowledge that there's much more to come.

Some say the expectations for UC Merced to transform the region might have been hampered by the recession and the economic woes that followed and that were strongly felt in the region.

Regardless, the institution reports that it has contributed more than $815 million to the Central Valley's economy since it began operations in 2000.

"Maybe things haven't changed as quickly as they could have because of the economic downturn, but I certainly feel that in the last 11 years, I've seen a lot of growth in housing, changes in the retail -- retail venues that are now available," said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

"As the campus grows, and as we have more students, faculty and staff, we will continue to see change, said Lawrence, who relocated to the area for her job in 2001.

The young campus will be celebrating Founders Day, the 10th university of its groundbreaking, on Thursday.

After 1995, when Merced was selected as the site for the new UC campus, and before the campus was physically in Merced, people were already talking about the transformation that the research university would bring to the city, county and region.

By having the institution here, the highly underserved area would be uplifted by change in its culture, business environment and academic climate. In addition, its population would grow and the area would strongly benefit from inventions coming out of the research incubator at the school.

Changes emerging

That full transformation hasn't happened, but some of those changes have started to emerge, community members say.

"I think some of those (changes) have happened. But there may have been an unrealistic expectation in the beginning that it would happen a lot faster than it is," Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said. "But I think we all have to be patient while the campus grows and understand that they're still quite a new campus."

Lawrence said the campus has grown steadily over the past eight years, but said she can't predict how fast it will continue to grow because there are so many factors that officials "can't control."

"You don't grow a research university overnight," she said.

The university eventually plans to expand its enrollment to 25,000, but that's going to take years, Lawrence said. The focus now is getting the campus to 10,000 students in the next eight to 10 years, she added. Enrollment is at 5,760.

Businesses have come to the area to target those students, some say.

"We are going to have a hookah lounge opening up -- that's something that wouldn't happen without the students being here," Thurston said. "The same owners are (opening) a nightclub."

More cultural events, concerts and plays are taking place in the community, he said. The community's Art Hop, which takes place four times a year, is also well attended by the UC students.

"Without the campus being here, I don't know that would be as successful as it is," he said.

Frank Quintero, director of economic development for the city of Merced, said the campus has not changed the business environment, but has influenced it.

He said many businesses, especially those downtown, do target UC Merced students, but others are more focused on the entire community -- not one segment. But this is just the first phase, Quintero said.

On a larger scale, Quintero said that as the university's research efforts take off, firms will be attracted to the area to take advantage of that cutting-edge work. He said some students may launch Merced-based companies.

"The UC is definitely a dynamic institution, and we will continue to feel their influence in this community," he said. "We see the UC as an economic catalyst, but change comes incrementally, it doesn't happen overnight."

Samuel Traina, vice chancellor for research and graduate dean at UC Merced, said a couple of companies have formed as a result of the university's solar research. There also are ongoing research projects that look at pressing issues in the region such as health disparities.

But it will take a few more years for research to have a more direct impact on people living here and for more companies to come to the area as a result of that work, Traina said.

"In the future, we will see more economic development in the region, but it takes times for that kind of change to manifest," he said.

The change that has been seen depends on what people expected, said Gaye Riggs, co-vice president the University Friends Circle, a group that was started by the wife of the second UC Merced chancellor, Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang.

"If you expected great economic development, then you are disappointed," she said, adding that if people expected more music and intellectual conversations in the community, "than you're not disappointed."

Building a relationship

The goal of the group is to foster a stronger relationship between the university and the greater Merced County community, she said.

It organizes several programs during the year, featuring a professor who's conducting groundbreaking research, so the community can become familiar with what's happening on campus.

Art Kamangar, a retired orthopedic surgeon in Merced, said initially many people were against the UC coming to the area because of the negative effects it could have had on the community, such as traffic. But he had a different view, having lived near Stanford before relocating to Merced.

He's seen firsthand the kind of positive changes an institution can bring to the community. The area has seen cultural, economic and educational improvement, he said.

For example, UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland was the keynote speaker at an event last week at Merced High School to inform students about college opportunities.

"That's a tremendous impact," said Kamangar, who has been a member of the board of trustees since 2003.

One of the reasons the Central Valley was selected as a home for the UC campus was to try to increase the college-going rate of students in the region, Lawrence said.

"Far fewer students go to college than from the coastal communities," she said. "The hope was that by having the UC here, that we would be able to encourage young people, not only from Merced, but in other Central Valley communities ... to go to college and fullfil their dreams."

About 31 percent of the campus' students come from the Central Valley.

Amelia Herrera Bomhoff was part of the first class of students at UC Merced in 2005.

She said simply the notion of having a UC in the valley started to "create the idea of change," because students who thought they couldn't leave home to attend college gained hope.

Still, she said, change is a work in progress.

UC Merced doesn't have the attractions bigger universities have, Bomhoff said, but it's part of a much bigger system -- one that's renowned worldwide for its academics, research and diversity.

She hopes other students in the valley will do as she has and take advantage of the educational opportunity that's so close to home.

"To further yourself, and use those skills to give back and continue to contribute to the social change, that is really needed," she said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.


UC Timeline

• October 2002 — Official groundbreaking of the University of California's 10th campus.

• October 2003 — Construction of first building begins.

• March 2003 — First cohort of faculty members arrives.

• August 2004 — First graduate courses begin.

• November 2004 — Acceptance of applications for first undergraduate class.

• September 2005 — Official grand opening and the arrival of the first class of undergraduate students.

• May 2006 — Conferral of first bachelor's and master's degrees.

• August 2006 — Founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey steps down.

• March 2007 — First building complex earns LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

• March 2007 — Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang appointed chancellor.

• May 2008 — Conferral of first doctorate degree.

• May 2009 — Inaugural class's commencement with keynote address by first lady Michelle Obama.

• April 2010 — Designated as Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education.

• September 2010 — UC Merced San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education partnership with UC Davis launches to begin educating medical students.

• April 2011 — Received membership approval from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

• July 2011 — Dorothy Leland appointed chancellor.

• August 2011 — Awarded accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

• October 2012 — Founders Day, 10th anniversary of groundbreaking commemorated.

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