Little did Ray Winter know that the namesake of his elementary school, Merced's John Muir Elementary School, would later become one of the subjects of his doctoral dissertation.
This week, Winter, 34, finally breathed easy. He sat inside the first floor of UC Merced's library and exhaled deeply, as if he was blowing out the stress of the last five years of his life.
On Monday, he defended the dissertation he wrote on John Steinbeck and John Muir. Today he'll graduate with his doctorate in American literature from UC Merced's World Cultures Department, a graduate program in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.
He is one of 12 students receiving their doctorate degrees today from UC Merced.
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"I'm done," he said, sighing. "I'm completely done."
Winter's educational life has now come full circle.
At the age of 2, Winter moved to Merced with his family because his father was stationed at Castle Air Force Base. He attended Merced schools all his life and graduated from Merced High School before attending Fresno Pacific University for his undergraduate degree.
When he was in fifth grade, he discovered his interest in John Muir and the Sierra Nevada during a class trip to Camp Green Meadows in Yosemite.
"I love the Sierra -- that's the place that gives me life," he said.
Winter's love of the Sierra has been lifelong. Their lure became part of the focal point of his dissertation, "The California Dream: Social and Environmental Dangers of the Myth Protested by Muir and Steinbeck."
You could call Winter's studies Central Valley-centric.
His interest in Steinbeck came after reading and teaching "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck's famous novel about "Okies" coming to California from the Dust Bowl. He taught the book to his Advanced Placement literature class years ago when he worked as a school teacher in Dinuba.
"I fell in love with the book and I saw how important it is to the Central Valley," Winter said. "The issues he raised in 1939 are very relevant to what's happening now."
To be able to pursue an advanced degree in the area that's not only the content of your research, but also your home, is incredible, he said.
"I think there's something about the place you grew up -- it sinks its roots into you and it becomes you," he added.
Winter, who lives in Fresno with his wife and three children, began pursuing his doctorate in 2005 when UC Merced first opened. He's one of the school's first Ph.D. candidates to graduate with an advanced degree in literature.
He hoped to graduate last year, he said, because he wanted to graduate with the school's first four-year undergraduate class, but his paper just wasn't ready.
And now that it is, he's relieved.
Winter said he hopes to stay in the area, but he faces a tough task -- finding a job in today's economy.
"I'd prefer to stay in the Valley because it's where family is," he said. "And it's where I have something to talk about."
As Tom Joad, the main character in Steinbeck's novel, put it: "A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody..."
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.