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UC Merced’s first full graduating class: We made it!

They were the trailblazers, this first full class about to graduate from the University of California, Merced. And like most pioneers, they had to create their own traditions amid adversity and attrition.

When they arrived as freshmen in the fall of 2005, classroom buildings weren’t ready on the fledgling campus, a former golf course surrounded by cow pastures in the San Joaquin Valley. For more than a year, classes met in the library and dorm lounges; sometimes, because of construction, the only access was by fire escape.

“I think it takes a certain kind of person to go to a school where there is nothing and start something,” said Kim Wilder, an English major from Brea who is among an expected 320 students -- less than half those who started as freshmen -- who will graduate on Saturday. Twenty-one others finished early, 110 are continuing and about 250 transferred or dropped out.

Wilder, 22, said the opportunity to be part of something new, along with small classes and the chance to work with faculty on research, kept her and many classmates at Merced. “Of course, we grumbled and complained now and then,” she said. “But for the most part, people got behind the idea that if we stuck it out, it would feel a little more normal.”

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Merced, the first new UC campus in four decades, is more normal now, with 2,700 students, 120 full-time professors and three major academic buildings around a grassy quad with views of the Sierra Nevada. It is also about to be celebrated on a national platform.

Merced’s seniors decided they wanted First Lady Michelle Obama as their commencement speaker and pursued her through a lobbying campaign featuring 900 valentine cards, a video that declared “Dear Michelle, We Believe in You” and the pulling of every possible political string between Central California and Washington, D.C.

To the surprise of UC administrators, Obama accepted. Her spokesperson said the first lady was touched by the students’ efforts and their inaugural class status. Suddenly, what would have been a low-key ceremony may cost as much as $700,000 for such expenses as Jumbotron screens and extra security, although campus officials hope donations will offset some of the total.

Faculty and administrators attribute the Obama visit to the can-do spirit of a graduating class that learned to rely on itself. They also hope the attention will boost UC Merced’s profile and its freshman applications, which dropped slightly this year and were less than half that of UC Riverside, which typically trails the other UC campuses. And they want state funding to help the Merced campus grow to 12,000 students over the next decade and eventually to about 25,000.

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“A lot of high school students hear about UC Merced and may not know the opportunities we have here. Too many may think it’s a start-up, too new or too much of a risk,” said Yaasha Sabbaghian, a former student body president who helped lead the “Dear Michelle” campaign.

Merced’s high-profile visitor “will shine a limelight on us and show we are respected,” said Sabbaghian, a biology major from San Mateo who said he received an excellent education and is considering law school.

The founding students’ dogged spirit showed in the way they persisted in their educations and established 75 campus organizations, without older students paving the way, said Charles Nies, associate vice chancellor for student affairs.

“They created stuff and asked, ‘Why do we have to do it that way, why can’t we do it differently?’ ” Nies remembered. And though that could be frustrating some days, it was also valuable, he said: “That’s what we are training our students to do -- to go out there, challenge all the processes and find new ways to do things.”

Students who launched the first fraternities and sororities did so in an unusual way. Traditionally, national Greek organizations visit a campus to recruit. Instead, UC Merced students researched the clubs and invited only those with values and customs they liked, Nies said.

One campus group allied itself with Kappa Kappa Gamma because it was among the first sororities in the nation, founded in 1870 at Illinois’ Monmouth College, said UC Merced senior Katie Murray, one of the organizers. “We felt the founding women of that sorority related to us in so many ways,” said Murray, 21, a psychology major from Novato.

Four years ago, Murray was rejected by UC Santa Barbara; like many in the graduating class, she received an unexpected invitation to enroll at what became the 10th UC campus.

She accepted, despite warnings from friends at other colleges who said UC Merced might be “a joke school.” Now, she said proudly, “I feel I have had a chance and choice to make a difference instead of just being a face in the crowd.”

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Justin Duckham, 22, a history major from Los Gatos, said he had considered transferring to a university with a livelier arts scene and in a more cosmopolitan community. But when he talked to friends at other UC campuses, he was shocked at the difference.

“I was the only one who was getting individual attention from professors and was discussing things with them outside class. They know my name,” said Duckham, who helped found an underground newspaper at UC Merced and wants a job in radio journalism.

UC Merced sits on rolling grassland about an hour north of Fresno and five miles from the sleepy downtown of its namesake farming community. Its early construction was delayed by state funding shortages and efforts to protect the area’s vernal wetlands and the fairy shrimp, an endangered species. (Despite tongue-in-cheek calls to adopt that crustacean as Merced’s mascot, a bronze statue of the real honoree, the golden bobcat, was erected last month, next to a scenic campus bridge.)

The campus recently received federal approval for a development plan that allows it to push well past the original golf course site. But growing pains continue, with concerns that state budget deficits may delay completion of a much-needed classroom building now under construction, said Chancellor Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang, a South Korean-born electrical engineer.

In 2006, its second year, the campus was rattled by a drop in enrollment of new and continuing students. That turned around the next year. Still, current seniors recall that some former classmates left because they didn’t like rural life and the constant view of cows. Others who transferred wanted big-time sports -- Merced has only club-level teams -- or needed a wider array of academic majors. The campus has just 18 majors but plans to add more.

Professors say some students in the initial classes were unprepared for college work. All admitted UC students must meet the university system’s relatively high standards, but those admitted at UC Merced on average tend to have lower grades and test scores than those admitted at other UC campuses.

They also have the highest rates among their UC peers in these categories: of being in the first generation of their families to attend college; of belonging to a low-income household or under-represented racial minority; and of living in a rural area.

Kang said the statistics reflect the reason UC Merced was founded: to attract more San Joaquin Valley students, who now comprise about a third of the school.

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Of the freshmen who entered in 2005, about 49% will graduate within four years. That is lower than last year’s UC systemwide average of 59% but slightly better than last year’s class at UC Riverside, whose demographics are similar to Merced’s.

The size of the first graduating class “is pretty remarkable given what these students had to deal with when they first came here,” said campus provost Keith Alley. “It really is a remarkable testament to the fortitude of these kids and one reason I think they are so special.”

Now, the history of Merced’s pioneering class, and of the campus, has been written by students in a newly published book, “The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles.” The project’s advisor, UC Merced history professor Gregg Herken, was in the first graduating class at UC Santa Cruz 40 years ago. He says he sees similarities with this Merced class of ’09, starting with its willingness to attend a muddy start-up.

As farewells loom, UC Merced’s first graduating class is waxing nostalgic for those early, chaotic days, when students knew nearly everyone on campus. That changed as enrollment increased.

“Little by little, we saw a new face every day,” recalled student leader Sabbaghian. “We noticed we were losing the tight-knit community we had, and we realized how much we loved it.”

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larry.gordon@latimes.com


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