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Senior Writing Project Focuses on Campus History

October 24, 2008

Starting a university from scratch is no easy task – not even for an institution as venerable as the University of California. That’s what a group of UC Merced students have realized while undertaking one of the most exciting projects of their academic career: writing a book on the history of the UC system’s 10th campus.

“The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles” will be published next semester and given as a gift to all graduating members of the Class of 2009.

When complete, “The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles” will address three facets of building UC Merced: The UC system and its decision to create a 10th campus, the community of Merced and the people who lobbied for that campus to be placed here, and the group of people – faculty, students and staff – who took on the challenge of building a research university from the ground up.

“It takes a special group of people to start something this big,” said Jeff Wheeler, one of about a dozen students working on the project, which they all hope benefits future generations.

“Aside from just being something with our name on it, it will be a lasting legacy for our classmates,” said Emily Wentworth, also in the class.

“The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles” is an oral history project taken on by history and writing students advised by founding faculty member Gregg Herken. 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 here at UC Merced.

“I thought it would be interesting to experience the creation of a UC from the other side,” Herken said of his decision to join UC Merced’s faculty as a history professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

At the moment, Herken’s students – a collection of seniors either majoring in history or minoring in writing – are conducting the final interviews for the book and organizing its structure. Aside from the deadline pressure of finishing their manuscript by January so it can go to press, the students agree that just the oral history portion of the project presents its own challenges.

“Sources don’t always tell you what you want to hear,” said Katie Hatfield, a history major. “When you’re working on a project that has many sources still living, you find there are a lot of politics involved. People are very careful about what they’ll say.”

Despite working with cautious sources, the students are confident that the end result will be an accurate representation of what it took to create, build and develop UC Merced.

“There were issues and complaints in the beginning,” Wheeler said. “But it seems that all were addressed quickly. When you look back, none of the founding faculty has left for reasons other than their spouses finding jobs elsewhere. I think that says a lot about this campus and its attraction.”

Wentworth agrees, attributing it also to the special breed of people who joined UC Merced early on. “Not everyone is created to build a university,” she said. “Many professors want to focus on research; it really takes a special person to create an academic program.”