A decade has passed since Sam Fong (’09) crossed the stage to get his diploma and walked through Beginnings for the first time as part of UC Merced’s inaugural graduating class, and a lot has changed.
For one, the student population has quadrupled to nearly 8,000. The campus is in the midst of a massive expansion. But the 2019 commencement ceremonies provided a pause and a perfect opportunity for Fong and other first graduates to reflect on the university’s early days.
“When we first came here, there were only a few buildings — the Valley Terraces, dining commons, the California Room and half the library. I remember taking classes while there was construction and drilling activity right outside,” Fong said. “That was part of the fun and the charm, though.”
The choice to be a part of UC Merced’s first graduating class was an intentional one for Fong.
“Coming here with the intention to do great things made a significant difference in the way we thought and acted,” he said of the first graduating class. “We were not content to just let life happen to us, but instead chose to create traditions and found clubs and organizations that thrive to this day.”
UC Merced’s first class set the tone for the robust social and academic experience students have today. The group’s persistence and innovation convinced former First Lady Michelle Obama to serve as commencement speaker for 2009’s historic graduating class.
“All students in UC Merced’s inaugural class took a great risk in turning down established universities to create the basis of what this campus could become,” said Jason Castillo, student speaker at the first commencement. Castillo, who is now a Mohs surgeon and dermatologist in Southern California, returned as an alumni speaker at the commencement for the schools of Natural Sciences and Engineering last weekend. “We were all leaders in our own ways and developed the skills to work together, struggled to create, fought for change, and believed we could make a difference.”
The dedicated students lobbied Obama, writing letters about their unique experience and urging her to grace the stage to help them celebrate their commencement.
Heather Hopkins (’09), a flag bearer at the ceremony, said the journey to bring Obama to campus made her feel “completely energized and full of hope.”
“We had to consistently tell everyone where UC Merced was, why it was relevant, why our education was equal to all others. In that moment, when Michelle chose us, it felt like all of the hard work, passion and dedication that went into UC Merced was validated,” Hopkins said. “To this day, thinking about that moment gives me chills.”
The success of bringing Obama to campus and the subsequent growth in student enrollment are not the only metrics by which to measure UC Merced’s ascension in the 10 years since that commencement.
UC Merced is the fastest-growing public university in the nation and Education Dive’s 2018 University of the Year. It’s also the greenest —the only university in the nation with every building LEED Certified. In terms of research, it is the youngest university to ever receive a Carnegie R2 research classification and has 24 CAREER awards to its name.
While these successes have raised UC Merced’s profile, if you ask alumni, not everything has changed.
“Two things that haven't changed are the passion for the university from the staff, faculty and students, and the sense that students can achieve anything they want with the right amount of time, effort and dedication,” Fong said.
As for the memories? Those are irreplaceable.
“I made great friends and have memories I will never forget,” said Trevor Albertson (’09), one of seven Ph.D. graduates in 2009, who now serves as dean of Lassen Community College. “I received a world-class education. And I joined the University of California family. I wouldn't change it for anything. Looking back, I would do it all over again.”