The setting for the celebration marking 20 years since the groundbreaking for UC Merced was markedly different in many ways from the event it commemorated.
Wednesday's ceremony, attended by hundreds of faculty and staff - including dozens from when the university opened - took place in the Dr. Vikram and Priya Lakireddy Grand Ballroom. It was a scene far removed from the empty field where ground was broken for the 10th University of California campus in October 2002.
That groundbreaking, Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz said, was the culmination of more than a decade of planning by the state and the UC system, during which Merced won a hard-fought battle to house the campus.
"With the support of then-Governor Gray Davis, the Legislature, UC Regents, and boosters from the Merced community, we broke ground on October 25, 2002," Muñoz told more than 400 guests at Wednesday's celebration.
He recognized those founding faculty and staff who were in attendance, saying they "moved heaven and, of course, earth; worked around the clock to prepare for opening day; wore hard hats while teaching courses in buildings that were still under construction; paved the way forward as UC Merced built student programs and support services; and most importantly they traveled throughout California to recruit students and convince others to join this academic community and help build this amazing institution."
Those initial faculty and staff members were invited to sign a banner commemorating the occasion. Several said they hadn't imagined how far the university would come in two decades, nor that they would still be here.
Diane Caton worked at a local law firm with some of the early UC Merced supporters. She said her colleagues laughed when she applied for a job as an administrative assistant in Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey's office.
"They didn't think we would actually build it," said Caton, now a business supervisor in the Center for Business Services and Solutions . "Twenty years later, here I am."
Carmen Middleton started at UC Merced in 2005 as a baker. That was followed by positions in the Office of International Affairs and in the provost's office. She now works as a research coordinator in the university's Health Sciences Research Institute .
"I worked my way up," said Middleton. "The environment here has made me comfortable and successful."
Like Middleton, UC Merced has grown and achieved incredible success over the last 20 years. Muñoz highlighted some of the university's major accomplishments. Among them:
- Rising in national rankings for education, sustainability and social mobility.
"I always point out that we don't do what we do to pursue rankings," Muñoz said. "Rather, we pursue excellence, and others take note."
- Increasing grant funding to fund research excellence across a wide spectrum of subjects.
"In the last two years alone, our faculty have been awarded a record amount of research grant funding to continue to push the boundaries of engineering, science, humanities and the arts," Muñoz said.
- Growing a vibrant, diverse student body and providing increased opportunities in areas ranging from lab research to athletics.
- Successful fundraising efforts, including the current Boldly Forward campaign, aimed at raising $200 million by 2030. It's an ambitious goal, but one the chancellor said he was confident of achieving because of recent successes. "Our annual Give to UC Merced set a goal of raising $150,000," he said. "It has raised more than $952,000." He also pointed out that the amount UC Merced raised in 2022 equals the total raised from 2014 through 2021.
Though much of Wednesday's commemoration was a look back at UC Merced's history, Muñoz said there is much more to achieve. "There is no doubt," he said. "We are on the rise."
He described new programs and plans for growth that will see the student population rise to 15,000 by 2031, in line with the university's new strategic plan.
"And as we continue to move UC Merced boldly forward, I promise you this: We're just getting started."