Jill Cunningham has taken on Merced College, not once, but twice so far in her lifetime. Cunningham first came to the College after graduating from Le Grand High School “in the 80s.” Here she earned 60 credits, and then transferred to American University in Washington, D.C. Her second trip is ongoing. A longtime political operative in our nation’s capital and the Bay Area, she returned in 2017 to serve as Associate Vice President of External Relations and Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation. For our alumni issue, Cunningham now ruminates on her experiences as a Blue Devil—the one that was preordained, and the one that brought her home.
Why did you decide to attend Merced College?
“Growing up it was just a given that I would attend Merced College. For as long as I can remember Merced College was a part of my universe. My grandfather was on the founding board of Merced College and worked hard to get a Community College in Merced. After that my father served for 10 years or so on the Merced College Board of Trustees. Having attended a small rural high school, I couldn't wait to get to the big city of Merced to start my college career!”
What was your career plan when you came to the College? Did you even have a plan?
“Ag Communications. I spent years in 4-H and I was very active in my local FFA Chapter, earning a California State Farmer FFA Degree. I also grew up on a cattle ranch and had ‘agriculture' in my blood.”
Did your plans change once you graduated?
“The summer I graduated high school and before I attended Merced College I went to Washington, D.C. to intern for our Congressman, who at the time was Tony Coelho. It was then that I became really interested in politics and social issues in America. I decided that I wanted to go to college in D.C. and be around that energy and our nations decision-makers. Once I got there, I decided to major in Communications, Law, Economics and Government (CLEG). After graduation I spent many years working on Capitol Hill.”
What was your best non-academic moment at Merced College?
“I loved, loved, loved the football and basketball games. All the extracurriculars were so fun and there was such an amazing school spirit. Also, I met my lifelong best friend at Merced College and 30 years later we are still best friends.”
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time here?
“Wow, I honestly can't imagine my life without Merced College. As cliche as it might sound, it did shape my trajectory. Merced College gave me the space and the time to explore what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I just would not have been emotionally prepared to leave my high school, of maybe 300 students at the time, with zero college prep, I might add, and head to a big four-year institution. Merced College provided me the opportunity to take risks and make mistakes and meet new friends and explore exciting ideas and career paths. And, still, when I speak about my college professors, it's always, always the Merced College professors that I remember best.”
Finish this sentence: Without Merced College I wouldn't be . . .
“' . . . working at Merced College!’ Honestly, I wouldn't want to do this job anywhere else. The reason why I'm so passionate about what I do is because of my time here. When I go out and talk to the community or with donors I really speak from the heart. I think about my 18-year old self, with all of the insecurities and dreams of an 18-year old, and how Merced College helped me accomplish those dreams. I believe to my core that everybody should have access to those same dreams and Merced College provides that in a way that is affordable and attainable. In fact, I truly believe that the greatest anti-poverty program that this nation has to offer is our community college system. Community colleges change lives, like mine, every single day.”
I am going to put you in charge of producing a commercial pushing the College to incoming
freshmen. What is your message?
“Funny you should ask. Part of my job is producing commercials! In our marketing and branding I always try to think of the barriers that students face and what it might look like to have someone say, ‘Come, join us. Let us help you accomplish your dreams.’ Sometimes that's all someone needs to hear. They need to know that there are friendly faces across campus to help shepherd them. Setting foot on a college campus for the very first time is intimidating and I want our community to know that we have some of the very best counselors and professors and coaches and administrators and classified professionals I've ever seen. Mainly, I want to speak to the rich diversity of our community, whether it's our employees or a returning student forging a new career path, or a first-in-their-family college student or a veteran or an English as a second language student. There is a place for everyone at Merced College and all you have to do is take that first step! (Can you tell I love this place?)”