Coming off the heels of UC Merced’s 2018 Homecoming last weekend, I am reminded of the promise that the university brings to this area.
A large crowd of that was full of eager-eyed prospective students, current students that were energized from free coffee, passionate staff members, and proud alumni, assembled at one of the UC’s courtyards to watch student group performances and to listen to the words of school and civic leaders.
Mayor Mike Murphy kicked things off by speaking of the need for students to stay and contribute to this area, and of the opportunity they have if they do make Merced their home. Charles Nies, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, followed up by stating that those who are a part of UC Merced are “building the future in the heart of California.”
As I skimmed the crowd of those high school students that can’t wait to attend college and start their adult future, I couldn’t help but wonder who was stirred by the message of wanting to build their future in the heart of California, and who we might see as future UC students in the years to come. What I did know for certain is that this message has already stirred the hearts of many youth in the valley; youth like Maggie.
This future starts with people like Magdalena (Maggie) Castaneda. Maggie’s story is a homegrown story and reflects the dream of the UC. Maggie grew up in the south side of Merced and that’s where she lives to this day. Her parents, originally from Mexico, chose to live in Merced after residing in downtown Los Angeles for several years, and loved the idea of Merced due to its peacefulness, friendliness, and quietness which reminded them of their home in Mexico. Her parents will to ensure that she and her sister had a good life.
Maggie is an alumna of many Merced schools, attending Pioneer, Sheehy, Tenaya, and Merced High. The University came into town when Maggie was twelve years old. She hadn’t yet considered the UC when she became a UC Scholar in middle school, but it gave her great exposure to university. Like many kids at that age, she had no idea where she wanted to attend college. She knew that she wanted to stay in the Valley. Considering the fact that she was first generation American and her parents had not attended college, as she pioneered a new chapter for her family by embarking on the college journey, she and her parents collectively decided that she should attend college that was close to home. To some eighteen year olds, there’s a negative stigma to staying close to home for college because it’s not as exciting or thrilling, but Maggie felt differently. While “I wanted to experience something different. I knew the UC would bring a lot of opportunities and growth for me and to our community.” Opportunities for Maggie came knocking.
After a successful four years in college and being a part of several groups like the Bobcat Martial Arts team, Maggie became the first in her family to not only graduate from college, but graduate from a UC. Her success at school and the connections she was able to make landed her a job at the UC in the Alumni Relations department where she works today.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with a leader in the community, you know that it’s their hope for UC students to stay in town after they’ve graduated, to get a job, and start their lives here, all the while contributing to the community. There’s already a community of people born and raised here who are doing just that. Maggie is just one of them. Outside of a degree and a job, the UC has deeper meaning to Maggie. To her the UC is, “Opportunity and hope. Hope for a better future not only for our city but for our people. There’s a lot of students in the Central Valley that don’t pursue higher education based on minimal resources or lack of knowledge. The UC system as a whole and UC Merced makes a difference in getting opportunities out there, showing them that they do have more than one path that they can forge.”
While her story is nowhere near being finished, it is a story that I hope resonates with many in Merced. Hollywood, novels, and the zeitgeist of the day create a stigma around small, country towns, that your future can only be lifted up by luck or chance. Not so in Merced. Merced is full of opportunity for those that work for it, just like Maggie’s parents. They worked hard to provide opportunities for her and her sister, and they’ve been successful. Now Maggie is working hard to build a strong future for herself and her family. Her dreams and goals are yet to be defined, but I know I will enjoy watching her build that future. To those kids in the Central Valley that don’t know what their dream is yet either, Maggie has a few words of hope for you:
“Take pride in where you come from and what you have. Despite what you lack, your future holds a plethora of opportunities and dreams that you can accomplish as long as you have the spirit and the will to move forward.”
That spirit is what the Central Valley is all about.