By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

There are as many great stories about Merced College students succeeding and graduating as there are Merced College students.

We are proud to turn today’s spotlight on Merced College family members—employees Alexis Alkema and Margaret Pulido, and Anaya Cambridge, daughter of counselor Isabel Cambridge—who will graduate May 20 with the Class of 2022.

Alexis Alkema is a Student Services Program Assistant, working with the outreach and dual enrollment teams to guide students towards degrees and certificates.

She has the passion of a convert for her work.

As a 2013 Golden Valley High graduate, however, she was lukewarm about Merced College and stopped after a year. Working first as a waitress and then doing events coordinating, she learned how to implement processes and manage teams, but realized her heart was in service.

“And it gave me time for education to become personal,” she said.

It became urgent when the pandemic forced everyone to cancel events. She took a short-term position at Merced College in early 2020 and loved it. Feeling how strongly her colleagues supported her as an employee, she decided to become a student again, too.

“During the pandemic, with everything so out of control, I kept thinking about [Abraham] Maslow’s quote,” Alkema said, referring to the psychologist’s Hierarchy of Needs. “‘Either you step forward into growth or step backward into safety.’ I decided to look forward and enroll in school. It was something I could control.”

At the time, Alkema was also caring for her husband, who had suffered a brain injury. She immersed herself in studying the brain, mental health and the psychology of healing. She was learning at a rapid pace.

“Then, in my heart, I knew I needed to connect with people and encourage them,” she said.

Alkema enrolled at Merced College for Spring 2021. She’d already completed her general education requirements, so it took her just one year to complete an AA-T in Psychology.

“I was so inspired by other employees who had gone back to school later in life,” said Alkema, who is already studying for a BA at Stanislaus State.

“Working with students who were never sure if college was for them, I hope to be another voice saying, ‘It’s OK to be unsure. No one can take [a college education] away from you.’ Merced College is so much more than a place to get an education. Everyone here cares deeply about your success. You will never feel alone in your journey.”

Margaret Pulido—Area Administrative Coordinator for Los Banos Campus Acting Dean Francisco Tostado—began taking courses in Los Banos in 2005.

She had moved to Los Banos in late 2000, but was still commuting to Fremont for work and spending hours on the road each day. Her daughter was born in 2001, and Pulido wasn’t so interested in school just then.

But once her daughter started preschool, Pulido wanted and needed a job. She wanted to work at a school, but wasn’t sure she would pass any required math tests a decade removed from high school.

“Then I was like, ‘You know what? I want to do more,’” she said about her decision to enroll at Merced College. “I took one class and enjoyed it. I kept taking them.”

Thirteen years after walking in the Los Banos door, Pulido earned an AA in Social and Behavioral Sciences—she took a P.E. course with one of her sons and graduated with both of them—in 2018. Three years later, she completed the fast-track AA in Administration of Office Management (AOM) in 2021. This year, Pulido officially became an overachiever by nailing another AA in Administrative Office Professional and also completing AOM and Business Information Worker certificates.

Pulido credits everyone on the Los Banos campus for her success, including: the enthusiastic student services worker who greeted her on her first day; Counselor Jackie Solis, who noticed Pulido’s drive and asked her if she’d like a work-study job; Brenda Latham, the first dean Pulido worked for, who told her daily how capable she was.

Before enrolling at Merced College, Pulido says she spent her life just surviving. Trying to finish high school and ending up at a continuation school. Taking jobs only to support her family.

Pulido, who is now married, no longer relies solely on her survival instincts to make it through the day. She works hard. She goes home fulfilled. She wakes up the next morning raring to go.

She lives.

“Everyone thinks about success differently,” Pulido said. “I think of it as having little successes every day, of what we do to become better people and what we can do to be better to people.”

Anaya Cambridge has loved her time at Merced College. It began at age 11, with summer archery classes in College for Kids, and will end—for now—at age 19 with an AA-T in Anthropology and an AA in Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Since Cambridge got comfortable during those early summers—her love for archery burns to this day—it wasn’t an emotional stretch to enroll in a full course, in baking basics, at 14.

“I wasn’t quite ready for a college lifestyle, but I got my toes wet,” Anaya Cambridge said. “And my mom has been so helpful, figuring out what will work for me and helping me whenever I felt overwhelmed.”

Cambridge took a double course load each semester—four classes at Connecting Waters Charter School and two or three at Merced College—for several years. She graduated from high school in 2021 and, thanks to dual enrollment, needed just another year to complete two degrees at Merced College this year.

“There were times when I was doing nothing but schoolwork,” she said. “I worked hard and tried my best.”

External forces also motivate Cambridge, who is American Indian from the Navajo tribe. Her father Lenny is full Navajo. Her mother Isabel—a longtime counselor at Merced College—has both Mescalero Apache and Mexican blood.

“My mom started reminding me when I first enrolled that Native students make up less than 1% of all college students,” Anaya Cambridge said.

Because American Indians are woefully underrepresented at all levels of higher education, her parents appealed to her pride in her heritage. They shared with and have repeated to her how important it was to get as much education as she could as a young indigenous person.

Cambridge, who will transfer to UC Merced, is now uniquely poised for success in a possible career in holistic medicine, born of a fascination with the study of medicinal herbs and traditional healing practices.

“Indigenous people recognize the importance of introducing stuff from the earth into the body instead of chemicals,” she said. “I’m curious to learn how people rely on what the earth has to give.”