The San Joaquin Valley was, and continues to be, the place where the problems that California faces, in general, are most noticeable. High rates of unemployment, crime, poverty, and water use, as well as low levels of educational attainment plague the region. UC Regents saw great potential in the San Joaquin Valley, which presented a vast territory and a promising economy, fruit to being one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and in 1998, they decided that the tenth campus in the UC system would be located in Merced. Understandably, the presence of an academic institution was thought to be a way of getting up to speed a region that was left behind by the rest of the state.
The best way to generate change is through education. The regents knew that a UC in the valley would be a long-term solution, but definitely one that would have a great impact. A better education means better chances of finding a job and, more importantly, the opportunity of developing skills that are simply not present in some parts of the region. Higher levels of employment reduce rates of crime and poverty, and the sight of such future gives hope and motivates children who have grown up surrounded by unfavorable conditions to pursue a higher education. Moreover, a research institution in the UC system would generate thousands of jobs upon its opening given the need for professors, TA’s, and staff. And so the prediction was an immediate rise in employment rates and a future filled with professionals capable of changing their community for the better.
Over a decade later, UC Merced is actively helping the community. Faculty members have brought millions of research dollars to support projects that will eventually attract new industry to the region in areas such as solar energy, water conservation, and computer hardware. Also, community-engaged research, the direct involvement of people who are most affected by the problem at hand, is an essential part of the institution where students, faculty members, and the community work together to not only study the issue, but to provide applicable solutions based on the feedback of those who need them the most.
On top of all the problems in the valley, Merced was hit especially hard by the recession in 2008. The anticipation over the university’s expansion led to an overdevelopment given the speculation in the housing market. The 2020 Project, however, has helped the city out of the recession. Interestingly enough, because of the project, Mayor Mike Murphy plans to have an additional supply of about 1000 apartment units in the city by 2020. The expansion, which will cost around $1.3 billion, is definitely of major significance to the city, especially considering that the construction alone is expected to produce thousands of jobs, and that the city’s general fund, as Murphy states, is about $42 million a year; in other words, the project is injecting more money into the economy than many cities in the region ever could.
One can only imagine what Merced and the valley will look like in 20 years when many of the elementary, middle, and high school students that are visiting the campus right now will have already graduated from UC Merced and will be contributing to their community. There is still a long way before the valley reaps what the UC sow, but its impact has been undeniably noticeable in recent years and it will only keep reaching milestones in its path to generating socioeconomic change.
Photo Credit: Katrina Llanillo