UC Merced

UC Merced student project recounts history of campus

Photos of UC Merced site in the late 1990s.
Photos of UC Merced site in the late 1990s. Merced Sun-Star

Every UC Merced graduate will receive a diploma today, but they will also walk away from stage with something very special: a hot-off-the-press copy of the "The Fair Shrimp Chronicles."

The book, researched, organized and written by 11 writing and honors history students, describes the 10th UC campus' founding and college life for the first students.

History professor Gregg Herken supervised the year-long project.

More than 100 campus and community leaders gathered on campus Friday evening at a launch party for the book.

Many of those in the crowd had been interviewed by the student authors.

Among them was Chancellor Steve Kang, who was presented the first autographed copy of the book.

Other copies were embargoed, Herken said, until the chancellor received his.

"I am happy the students had the opportunity to work on such a unique project," Kang said. "I think this is a great basis for their future career development."

Kang added that he was taken by Herken's own unique story.

Herken was a pioneering student at UC Santa Cruz when it was founded 40 years ago and has embraced the opportunity to be a founding professor at UC Merced.

At UC Santa Cruz, founding students there published "Solomon's House" in 1970, which was used as the basis for the "Chronicles."

"I decided I wanted to look for a similar group of pioneering students to write a similar pioneering book," Herken said.

One tale in the book describes the trials of finding a location for the university. The site selection committee looked at 86 spots across the Central Valley; one team even posed as bird watchers -- carrying binoculars and guidebooks -- to avoid detection.

Renata Santillan was one of the authors. She remembered fondly the day members from the site selection committee told of the bird-watching disguise.

"They had a lot of great stories -- adventures really -- throughout the Valley," the 21-year-old cognitive science major said. "It really warmed my heart to know how hard people worked."

A key source for the book -- and UC Merced's existence -- was Chris Adams.

Adams was the first campus planner for the UC Merced campus.

He first became involved with planning in 1988, when the university president first discussed possible sites for a new campus.

"We were obliged to be absolutely objective," about each potential site, Adams said. "We were very careful not to be advocates."

But near the very end, when there were only a few possibilities left, he admits that he personally favored UC Merced.

"It was much more positive and encouraging here in Merced," Adams said.

He has visited campus just about twice a year since the decision was finalized.

From a quick skim of the pages, "they have got that sense of the spirit that was behind our efforts," he said.

Adams will read the book fully on Sunday, after the commencement hubbub has subsided.

Other parts of the book are lighter and more anecdotal.

Sidebars tell about student pranks, living in the dorms, taking classes in the library, navigating the tule fog and debating over the school mascot -- originally a marmot.

A grant from the Spencer Foundation of $12,000 will cover the cost of printing the books so the entire Class of 2009 can have it for free.

At the campus bookstore, it is for sale for $11.95. Proceeds will go to a writing program on campus and a fund to build a student center.

The title of the book refers to the endangered crustaceans found in nearby vernal pools, forcing the university to delay construction and shift the campus a mile away from its original site. The fairy shrimp has become something of an underground mascot at the campus, represented officially by the native bobcat.

The paperback is less than a dozen chapters and focuses on anecdotal storytelling. Chapters start with "Where Is Merced?" and end with "Merced 2.0."

At the launch party, student author Kim Wilder read the final chapter of the book to a captive audience.

What began as a dream a quarter century ago, had become reality for the honored guests.

As she concluded with a familiar phrase to those in the UC system, a resounding applause rose from the crowd.

What did Wilder read? This article -- unlike UC Merced's promising future -- is a cliffhanger.

The Modesto Bee contributed to this report.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.