Last year, I took a road trip to interview and film first college students on campuses throughout California.
Forty-eight hours ago, I returned from a different kind of college road trip.
This time I took a van-full of high school students with me to the University of California, Merced. None of the students had given much thought to the university before our trip, but they were excited for a road trip, and were open to learning more about UC Merced.
I picked UC Merced because I was so impressed with it when I visited it last year. The newest University of California (it opened for undergraduates in 2005), UC Merced is a small school; there are just under 7,000 students. 71% of their students are first generation college students. According to their website, “UC Merced leads the UC system in the percentage of students from underrepresented ethnic groups, low-income families and families whose parents did not attend college.”
The Real Meaning of “UC”
UC Merced may be small, but it is mighty, and has big plans, as students learned on our formal tour of the campus. Alex Delgadillo, Associate Director of the Bright Success Center, joked in our meeting with him that “the real meaning of UC is Under Construction.” By 2050, UC Merced expects to be the largest University of California in the system.
Mi Casa Es Su Casa
The heart of the visit was spending time with students connected to SALE (Students Advocating Law and Education), an organization supporting undocumented students. The nucleus of SALE is Casa SALE, a house for undocumented students and allies. The interviews I conducted last year were with students living at the Casa.
Despite the fact that it was finals week and graduation is today, the Casa opened its doors to accommodate our students on this visit in so many ways. SALE students took shifts to visit with us in between their other commitments, so the high school students felt taken care of and had a host of local hosts.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, SALE students shared their stories about their college journeys and their experiences at UC Merced, asked the high school students about their lives and interests, and answered questions. In addition to nurturing their visitors’ spirits, they also provided snacks and overnight accommodations. And of course, no overnight visit would be complete without watching a late night horror film together.
The SALE students’ stories are varied. Some are from farm working families in the Central Valley, others are locals from Merced who commute to college and others are from the Los Angeles area. We met first, second and third year students, and a number who are graduating from college this weekend. The students are engineering, business, psychology, public health and political science majors.
Despite these variations, they also have much in common. They are all first generation college students. When they were younger, many had believed that college would not be a viable option for them. They have faced obstacles and setbacks along the way, yet they have persisted. They appreciate the support that UC Merced has provided for them to help them persevere.
Like the SALE students, the high school students we brought to visit UC Merced are all Latinx. One is an immigrant and the rest are children of immigrants from Mexico. They will all be first generation college students. Though some are the oldest and others the youngest in their families, they will each the be the first in their families to attend a four-year university.
Sowing Seeds for the Future
Several SALE students acknowledge that their graduation from college is an accomplishment for the whole family. They know the sacrifices that their parents have made for their education and the investment and support they have provided, despite the added pressures this placed on their families. The students also recognize that getting their college degrees will make a meaningful difference for their future children. They feel that their determination and hard work are laying a foundation to create more possibilities for future generations.
A new academic building opened on campus this year. One student connected the literal and the metaphoric. “We are building our futures while UC Merced is literally building for the future.” She had been a student at Merced during early parts of the construction. She, and other students, signed their names on the steel beams within the building, before the walls were built. Even though no one will ever see her name on that beam, she knows it’s there. Her invisible signature ties her to the history of this campus, and to the idea of being part of building something, planting seeds for the future.
UC Merced is just getting started and has great possibilities ahead.
The same is true for the first generation students we met there, and the ones we brought to visit the campus. They all represents seeds, which are just hints of the future possibilities that can grow from them. If we tend them, appreciate them, and support them, they will thrive and yield in unimaginable ways. We can help plant and water the seeds, then watch them grow.