Ann Hinesley-Perez's original academic plans didn't involve law school — or even UC Merced.
Hinesley-Perez was born and raised in Merced, but with UC Merced still in development, she left town in 2003 to pursue a psychology degree at UC Berkeley. But after the new campus opened in 2005, she returned to her roots — and her career goals also began to shift.
Now she's one of the first UC Merced alumni to earn a Juris Doctorate, and the first to earn one from the Fresno-area San Joaquin College of Law (SJCL).
In 2008, Hinesley-Perez graduated from UC Merced with a psychology  degree and began law school. She said her studies at UC Merced laid the foundation for her career in law.
"To effectively practice, you have to understand a lot about psychology," Hinesley-Perez said, adding that lessons from an intense language and grammar class have helped her reading of legal statutes. "It was an easy transition."
Hinesley-Perez arranged to job-shadow an attorney at the Merced law firm of Morse, Morse & Morse. She took a job there as a legal assistant and found that she enjoyed the field, prompting a change in her career path.
She said both UC Merced and SJCL offered attentive professors and students who look out for each other.
"You're more accountable for your actions," she said. And "if you're slacking off, chances are the professor is going to notice."
More UC Merced alumni are in SJCL's pipeline, as well: Two are currently enrolled, and three others have been accepted for the fall term.
"A continuing concern for the San Joaquin Valley has been the ‘brain drain' — talented individuals leaving the Valley for their education and never returning," said Jan Pearson, the school's dean. "UC Merced and SJCL are helping to reverse that drain, and Ann, a very talented person, is living evidence of that."
Hinesley-Perez hopes to practice in Merced and is leaning toward criminal law. She said she wants to be part of an evolving legal community that offers both the fresh perspective of young attorneys and the experience of more established lawyers.
"I feel like this is my niche," she said.