University of California, Merced, freshman Hannah Mandelbaum could have gone to college just about anywhere. An honor student from Redondo Beach with an interest in world history, she applied to 10 universities and was accepted at nine. But she chose UC Merced after stepping onto campus for the first time.
"It felt like a fit to me," she said. "It's new and gorgeous!"
As classes begin today (Aug. 24) for some 4,000 UC Merced students, stories such as Mandelbaum's are making the rounds. Together, they paint a picture of a thriving young campus that's attracting top students from all over the state in just its sixth year of operation. With enrollment up nearly 18 percent compared with fall of 2009, which was itself a record year, the newest UC campus is clearly hitting its stride.
"UC Merced has come a long way since we welcomed our inaugural class of 875 students in 2005," said Steve Kang, UC Merced chancellor.
"This year's applicant pool was by far the largest, most talented and most competitive in our history. Students increasingly recognize they can earn a quality UC education in a much more personal, innovative environment than they can find elsewhere, and they see that as a huge advantage in preparing for a successful career or their next academic challenge."
Abdul Abdali, a transfer student from Ohlone College in Fremont, was attracted to UC Merced by the opportunity to study biology in a tight-knit community. The scholarship he was offered made his decision that much easier.
"You get to know people on a closer basis," he said, adding that he's already connected with about 15 other students through Welcome Day and campus orientation.
Coming of age in the most difficult economic environment in decades, UC Merced is minding its resources carefully and retaining the feel of a smaller, more intimate campus that students find welcoming and unpretentious. Close interaction with world-class faculty, including hands-on research opportunities for every student, and a commitment for students to learn by working in the community also contribute to a "real-world" educational experience.
"Today's students are very entrepreneurial, concerned about community and results-oriented," said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs. "Building our curricula and co-curricular programs from scratch over the past five years has allowed us to deliver great scholarship and out-of-class experiences, such as internships and service learning programs, at both the theoretical and practical levels. When students see how these two worlds connect, they're unstoppable."
This year's student body includes approximately 1,385 new undergraduate students and nearly 50 new graduate students. (Exact numbers won't be available until mid-September, when all registration requirements have been met and a final census is completed.)
UC Merced is the most ethnically diverse campus in the UC system. It was officially designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution — meaning it has a student body that's at least 25 percent Hispanic — by the U.S. Department of Education last year.
Eight new faculty members also have been added this year, bringing the faculty total to 130 ladder-rank professors and 100 lecturers. The new faculty members and their areas of concentration are:
Faculty members attracted nearly $22 million in research grants in the fiscal year that ended June 30, about the same as the prior year's total despite a severely weakened global financial climate. The funds are used to finance advanced research into issues of importance to the region, state and world, such as healthcare, forest fires and air and water quality. Included among the awards were two CAREER awards — the National Science Foundation's early-career faculty-development awards — received by professors Elliott Campbell and Lin Tian.
UC Merced's growth continues to stimulate significant investments in goods and services in the region and throughout the state. To date, expenditures in the San Joaquin Valley since July 2000 have amounted to $547 million, including payroll, construction contracts awarded and goods and services purchased. Statewide, the total is now nearly $1.1 billion. University employment (excluding student employees) now totals approximately 1,100.
"In times of severe economic hardship throughout the Valley, we are extremely pleased that our growth is creating employment opportunities, stimulating business, increasing tax revenues and helping diversify the region's economic base," said Chancellor Kang. "In the long term, we believe UC Merced will have a major positive impact on the chronically high levels of poverty and unemployment that have plagued the region for decades."
Kang said campus construction projects this year will include the 101,000-square-foot Social Sciences and Management Building. All new facilities are expected to meet or exceed LEED "Gold" standards for environmental sustainability, as defined in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
Kang also said funding commitments from the UC Office of the President for the near term will allow the campus to add roughly 600 total students (net) per year through the 2012-13 academic year, when enrollment is expected to reach approximately 5,200.