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UC Merced Announces Spring Commencement Speakers

May 6, 2024
The 2023 spring commencement ceremony at UC Merced is shown.
This year's speakers have a wide variety of experiences to share with students.

The speakers who will address graduating UC Merced students at their commencement ceremonies May 10-12 come from a variety of backgrounds and achievements, but all three are vanguards in their fields.

Friday evening, students earning graduate degrees will hear from UC Merced Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, former director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. On Saturday, community health CEO Cástulo de la Rocha will address students graduating from the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. On Sunday, graduates from the schools of Natural Sciences and Engineering will be sent off with a message from Charles Nies, UC Merced's vice chancellor for student affairs.

Berhe served as director of the federal agency from 2022-2024. She is a professor of soil biogeochemistry and the university's Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences in the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences and a former associate dean of Graduate Education.

Berhe researches the intersection of soil science, geochemistry, global change science and political ecology. Her work seeks to improve the understanding of how the soil system regulates the earth's climate and the dynamic two-way relationship between soil and human communities. She is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering; a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America; and a member of the inaugural class of the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine's New Voices in Science, Engineering and Medicine.

UC Merced commencement speakers Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Cástulo de la Rocha and Charles Nies are pictured.
UC Merced commencement speakers Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Cástulo de la Rocha and Charles Nies.

As President and CEO of AltaMed Health Services Corporation, de la Rocha transformed a storefront barrio clinic in East Los Angeles into the largest Federally Qualified Health Center in California and among the top five in the nation.

In 1977, de la Rocha saw a need: People in low-income neighborhoods throughout Southern California were significantly underserved by essential health resources. The Barrio Free Clinic in his neighborhood often had a line winding around the block. AltaMed was born from de la Rocha's need to meet this fundamental requirement and has become one of the area's largest health care systems, with roughly 60 medical, dental and senior-care sites staffed by more than 5,000 employees and serving nearly 500,000 patients a year.

Nies needs no introduction to UC Merced students. He has taught and mentored thousands of them since joining the university in 2006 as dean of students and associate vice chancellor. Like many of his students, Nies was the first in his family to attain a college education.

As an instructor, he has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in leadership theory, organizational theory, student development and social identity development. Nies has consulted for several universities, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies, including long and distinguished service on California's Student Aid Commission.

Nies has served successive UC Merced administrations as a trusted advisor and repository of institutional knowledge, and has been an unabashed cheerleader for higher education in general and the university specifically. He also will be graduating from UC Merced: He recently was named chancellor of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, a position he will assume July 1.

Two students also have been selected to address their classmates.

Selected as student speakers are Eva Devanathan, who will address the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts graduates Saturday, and Virginia Manandeg, who will offer remarks at the Sunday ceremony for the Engineering and Natural Sciences schools.

Devanathan, a cognitive science major from Sunnyvale, was recently presented the SSHA Outstanding Graduating Student Award by the Department of Cognitive and Information Sciences.

While at UC Merced, she served as president of the campus's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter. She was a member of the CogSci Student Association and an officer for the Statistics Club. She plans to pursue a master's degree in human-computer interaction at UC Santa Cruz's Baskin School of Engineering.

Manandeg is a first-generation student from the Philippines who lives in Sacramento. She is a computer science and engineering major.

During her time on campus, she served in leadership positions for the Associated Students of UC Merced, the Pilipinx Americans in Science and Engineering and the Homebound Dance Team. She was involved in the Campus Activities Board's Volunteers-In-Programming and as a Bobcat Mentor. She plans to obtain a Project Management Certification and work in the tech field.

Patty Guerra

Public Information Officer

Office: (209) 769-0948