By James Leonard
In his first State of the College Address since the pre-pandemic days of 2019, Merced College President Chris Vitelli touted the importance of a family-like culture, strong relationships and community partnerships to the college’s ability to innovate and evolve through great challenges.
Merced College has broken ground on new construction, improved technology all over campus, reimagined old spaces for entirely new uses, and developed and launched new academic programs. Next up in the college’s evolution, Vitelli said in his Thursday address to about 400 guests in the college’s amphitheater, is the development of a full-fledged Merced College Online campus.
“The state of Merced College is as strong and vibrant as it has ever been, which is remarkable when you think about the challenges we’ve faced during the pandemic,” Vitelli said. “We have weathered storms together, and we have developed innovative solutions together, and we will continue to move forward together into a future that is unquestionably bright.”
Recognizing support, innovation
Vitelli resumed another annual tradition at Thursday’s event: the presentation of the President’s Medallion Award recognizing the college’s greatest supporters. This year’s honorees — Susie Downey and her late husband, Col. Russell Downey — donated $1 million to Merced College last year to support student success and access initiatives.
Following the address, the college unveiled the newly renamed and renovated Col. Russell and Susie Downey Learning Resource Center. The LRC, which now boasts new help desks, tutorial services and even food offerings, is just one example of the recent innovations, additions and upgrades at Merced College.
Construction is well underway on the new Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex. Improved wi-fi and classroom technology can be found throughout the Merced and Los Banos campuses. And a new Innovation Center on the Merced campus features shared workspaces and a remote worker lounge, along with instructional design experts and high-tech recording studios to help faculty create engaging online experiences for their students.
“When I walk on our campuses now, I am blown away by what I see,” Vitelli said. “We did not simply survive the pandemic. We are emerging better and stronger than ever.”
Embracing online education
Innovation is also occurring in curriculum, as the college looks to create more and more flexible options for students, including more online and hybrid classes, accelerated programs, competency-based education for working professionals, and more.
“Students increasingly expect flexibility in how they learn, and we are responding to that desire,” Vitelli said. “When it comes to how we serve our students, every idea is on the table. We will not be so bound by tradition and old ways of thinking that we fail to consider any new idea or trend that might benefit our students and our institution.”
That includes the development of Merced College Online, which is expected to launch in Fall 2022 with dozens of degree and certificate programs offered fully online. The goal is not to replace the brick-and-mortar educational experience, Vitelli said, but to embrace the reality that online education is here to stay.
“We did it by necessity last year, and we did it remarkably well,” Vitelli said of the shift to online learning caused by COVID-19. “Now we get to take our time, and to be thoughtful and strategic, and to develop an online campus that can stand proudly alongside our physical campuses in both academic rigor and student support.”
‘All in this together’
Recognizing the many community partners in attendance, Vitelli noted some of the fruits of those partnerships.
New programs to train paramedics, hospitality workers and truck drivers—all of which are in-demand professions in the Merced region and beyond—came about through relationships with community partners.
Dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to graduate with college credits, and even with full associate degrees, are only possible because of relationships with K-12 schools and districts. Transfer pipelines to four-year universities like UC Merced and CSU Stanislaus are made more effective because of the relationships between the institutions.
All of these relationships and partnerships help create an environment in which the needs of students and the community are met in more creative, innovative ways than any one institution could achieve on its own.
“There is no way to predict what challenges we might face in the coming days, months or years,” Vitelli said. “What I can predict is that no matter what, we at Merced College will continue to focus on building and maintaining strong relationships on our campus, with our supporters and partners, and in our community.
“We are all in this together, and if we continue to work together, the possibilities are endless.”