Stephanie Barrera was in her nutrition class Wednesday when the alert from the University of California, Merced, came across her phone: A stabbing had been reported near the building she was sitting in.
Just across the hall, a male student attacked and wounded three people before heading outside and stabbing a fourth. Most students had their phones tucked away during class, Barrera said, so they were unaware of what was happening until a staff member interrupted the lecture, telling them to evacuate the building.
“There were some flashing lights in the building, but no siren,” the sophomore from San Diego said. “That guy could have walked into our classroom and we had no idea.”
The attack around 8 a.m. stunned students on the small campus, the University of California’s newest location, a gleaming collection of state-of-the-art facilities sprouting from the rolling hills at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
A two-hour drive from the Bay Area or Sacramento, Merced has boasted that its quiet, rural environment is far removed from urban pressures. Barrera, like many students who reacted to Wednesday’s stabbing, pointed to the campus’ sense of community, safety and peacefulness as drawing points.
Opened in 2005, the campus sits on a bucolic expanse of undeveloped acreage northeast of Merced. With just 6,685 undergraduate and graduate students, the school has the smallest enrollment of the 10 UC campuses.
“Incidents like this may happen at other places, but not at UC Merced. But it has,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland said in a statement.
The university’s first concern, she said, is for the full recovery of those wounded. “But I am equally concerned for the many witnesses and other members of the campus community who have been deeply traumatized by this event.”
Hours after the stabbing, Gloria Bustamante and her husband, Indalecio, arrived from the Bay Area to pick up their daughter, Karen, from her dorm room.
The 18-year-old heard the gunfire believed to have killed the suspect, Bustamante said. The violence came as a shock to the family, which had seen Merced as a safe place for their daughter, their oldest child and the first to go away to college.
“It’s far away from the big city,” she said. “We thought it would be a good place to be.”
Samantha Pizano, a senior biology student from Fresno, gives tours to prospective students and their families. Parents concerned about safety, she said, are relieved to see Merced’s rural location.
“You get to experience a private-school setting with a public-school tuition,” she said. “I tell them about what we have to offer, like no distractions and a smaller student-to-teacher ratio of 20-to-1.”
The attack was the most serious incident to occur on the campus.
Isaias Rumayor, a senior majoring in political science, described the campus community as “a very tight-knit group. Everyone typically knows or has seen each other around.”
He pointed to a recent survey of UC campuses that asked students and staff how comfortable they felt. The report published last year found 76 percent of respondents at UC Merced were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate there.
In the city of Merced, community members eagerly awaited news and offered prayers of support for the victims.
City Councilman Mike Murphy quickly scrapped a news conference to announce his campaign for mayor, turning the event into a prayer vigil in the brisk fall air outside Merced City Hall.
“Today is not a day for politics,” said Murphy, who taught a politics course at the university two years ago. “Today, we throw our arms around the UC Merced community.”
A group of pastors from local churches offered prayers for the wounded and their families, as well as for the family of the suspect.
“Today, we pray for healing,” said the Rev. Al Schaap of Gateway Community Church. “We pray for safety.”
The pastors reminded the crowd that when violence strikes one part of the community, everyone is affected.
UC Merced student Martin Chavez thanked the group on behalf of students such as himself who have made Merced their “home away from home.”
“I never thought it would happen here,” Chavez told the Merced Sun-Star after the prayer vigil. “We’re a small campus. But it goes to show that it could happen anywhere, and that we have to be prepared.”
Thaddeus Miller contributed to this report.