UC Merced chancellor attending White House summit

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 16, 2014 

More than 100 college and university leaders, including UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, are meeting today at the White House to discuss ways to increase the opportunity to get a higher education.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are expected to host the event, which will include college and university presidents and leaders from nonprofits, foundations, state governments and businesses from across the country, according to a news release.

“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity,” Leland said. “I’m glad that the White House has elevated the challenge of possibly getting more low-income students into and through the college pipeline.”

The summit is about “concrete steps” that can be taken to help low-income students get into and complete college, she said. Many students at UC Merced, of which 62 percent are first-generation college students, come from low-income families, Leland said.

Not being familiar with the university system can lead many of them to be afraid to tackle a daunting tuition, Leland said, or otherwise end their college career with tremendous debt. She said she expects to learn today of other ways to reach those students.

“I anticipate there will be sharing of best practices – what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” Leland said. “That information is just invaluable.”

Leland said the University of California system will also be represented by UC Regents President Janet Napolitano, as well as chancellors from UC San Diego and Berkeley.

The Center for Educational Partnerships, based in UC Merced’s Fresno office, works primarily with seventh- through 12th-graders who would be first-generation college students from low-income families. Director Orquidea Largo said students whose parents never went to college face a number of difficulties when trying to navigate an unfamiliar system.

She said the center caters to students who need to get ready for college-level academics, learn the university process or get help finding financial aid, among other needs. Largo said she’s often seen high-achieving, low-income students who are afraid to shoot too high because of the cost of tuition.

“Students that are academically prepared, we will assist them in applying to multiple institutions – to pursue schools even out of the Valley,” Largo said. “We will encourage them to pursue more of an elite education.”

The center, which covers the region from McFarland to Modesto, strives to get those students into a position that would give them as many options as possible when picking a college, Largo said. Some of the programs include classes for parents of the college-bound.

Once the students reach college, they need to learn to adjust to its speed. UC Merced has a slew of programs that are meant to do just that, said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs.

There is much more reading and writing, and it’s all done at a faster pace, Lawrence said.

Tutoring and mentoring is available at no cost, and the university also distributes midsemester grades for underclassmen. The Fiat Lux Scholars Program, which provides in-depth academic counseling for first-generation students, is also available to underclassmen.

“The last thing you want to do is do all this work to get them there and then not provide them with the support they need,” Lawrence said.

Today’s White House event will be streamed live at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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