President Speaks: Boosting social mobility requires supporting students 'on all sides'
Editor's note: Dorothy Leland is chancellor of the University of California, Merced. Read more about UC Merced, which was named University of the Year in our 2018 Dive Awards.
When the University of California, Merced, opened its doors in 2005, it created new opportunities for thousands of students in the state's Central Valley and beyond.
As the first new UC campus to open since 1965 and the first research university to be built in the historically underserved San Joaquin Valley, the pressure was on for UC Merced to make an impact. Just 14 years in, that impact is being felt in our city, in our region, and most importantly, in the lives of our students and their families.
Our student population is remarkable. More than 73% are first generation — double the national average and by far the highest rate in the UC system. Nearly 600 of our students are undocumented, which is the highest by percentage in the UC system. More than 60% are low-income, and that number is closer to 70% if you include undocumented students, who are not eligible for Pell grants.
You might expect students like this to struggle, particularly at a university that is still in startup mode. But while more than 57% of our students are STEM majors, and many of them must work to support themselves and their families, they are thriving. According to U.S. News & World Report, UC Merced is No. 2 in the nation for outperforming expected graduation rates. And it is No. 14 in the nation for social mobility based on rankings by Washington Monthly.
There's no single answer to why we've been so successful in helping these students to graduation and on to graduate school and their careers. But there are four pillars I can point to.
We as a university can only take so much of the credit for the success of our students — nothing we do would work if not for the dedication of the students themselves.
When I say our student population is remarkable, I'm not just speaking of demographics. I routinely hear from our faculty members that we have some of the most hardworking, motivated and unassuming students they've ever taught. I see their positive attitudes and their sense of community every day when I walk around campus.
Interacting with our students is my trusted cure any time I feel stress or malaise creeping in. To see the gleam in their eyes and hear them speak about the changes they seek to make in their lives, their families, their communities and the world is all the inspiration I need to keep fighting for them and working on their behalf.
Our faculty and staff
Working at a brand-new university is not for everyone. We wear more hats than our counterparts at more established schools. We work longer hours. We live in a state of perpetual change that can be dizzying. We lack much of the infrastructure that is already in place at older universities, and often we have to build things ourselves.
But for people who thrive on change, and who are excited by the opportunity to create something new, there's no better place than UC Merced. As we have attracted more and more faculty and staff members who fit this mold, and as we have banded together to overcome challenges and to build this great university, a culture has developed.
UC Merced truly feels like a family. We care for each other and we care for our students. When someone looks lost, someone walking by will stop to help them. When tragedy befalls someone in our Bobcat family, we rally around them.
It all happens organically, and I believe this culture is a big reason why our students are successful. They feel supported on all sides, and this enables them to do their best work.
Beyond the culture that has developed on our campus, we also offer substantial programming to support students along their journeys.
The Calvin E. Bright Success Center houses a number of programs and scholarship funds for first-generation, low-income, undocumented and other special student populations. The Success Mentor Program empowers first-year students to make a successful transition to academic and social life at UC Merced through one-on-one mentoring with upper-division students. Our Peer Assisted Learning Support (PALS) program connects students to teach and learn from each other. Strengthening Talents and Exploring Pathways (STEP) helps students transition into their academic and career interests.
The Bright Center also partners with 12 community organizations — including College Track, Wonderful Education and Fulfillment Fund — to bring additional academic, career and other support programs to our students.
The results of these efforts speak for themselves. Students in the Bright Center and throughout campus are staying in school, they are graduating and they are finding success in their young careers.
UC Merced was placed in the San Joaquin Valley in part to provide access to a world-class University of California education to more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But more than just access, what we offer these students is a promise.
Our promise is that if they choose to attend UC Merced, they will become part of a student body that shares their passion and their struggles. Our promise is that they will find a safe, welcoming environment in which to live and learn, filled with people who genuinely want to help them. Our promise is that whatever challenges or obstacles they face, they will find the support and resources they need to overcome them.
This spirit has become part of our DNA. It has come to define who we are as an institution, who we are as individuals and who we are as a community. We are only as successful as our students, and we have built a university that is tailor-made for them and their needs.
We keep our promise to them, which in turn enables and empowers them to keep the promises they've made to themselves, to their families and to the university. This is the foundation of our success.