By Chris Vitelli, Ed.D.

Note: This column originally appeared in the Merced County Times.

When this year began, our society was still reeling from the first year of COVID-19. We were still working from home and students were still figuring out how to learn in online environments, and it was easy to slip into a mode of pining for whatever we had one considered “normal.”

What has become clear as we’ve moved through 2021 is that the word “normal” no longer applies to much of anything in our lives. It can be a little scary to think of constant change and disruption as a standard part of our everyday existence — but, aren’t they? Think back over the past year, or the past two years, or the five years before that, or the ten years before that. What in our lives has been as consistent and reliable as change itself?

In many ways, 2021 has been a year in which we collectively began to embrace change more fully, and to see the opportunities inherent in it. A year in which we began to reevaluate priorities, and embrace simple pleasures, and let go of beliefs that hold us back from being our best selves.

For an organization like Merced College, that has meant pivoting from a crisis response mode — in which we deftly redefined much of what we do in order to continue serving students and our community despite our challenges — toward a phase of creativity and innovation. We took the lessons learned during the pandemic, applied them in alignment with the values and principles that have always guided us, and moved our institution toward a future we could not have imagined two years ago.

Caring for our students

We knew early in 2021 that this would be the year our students began returning to campus, and as always, we made it our top priority to ensure they would have the services and support necessary to succeed.

Of course, health and safety were paramount. We’ve done that through masking and distancing protocols, and also by reopening in-person classes at a sensible pace — even for this coming spring, about half of our classes will be held in person, as we continue with a hybrid approach to avoid overcrowding our spaces and to provide students with as much flexibility as possible. Surprisingly, our in-person class enrollments are not keeping pace with our online offerings — a “new” normal perhaps?

Students who returned to campus found a slew of upgrades and additions to enhance their experience. With the unwavering support of our Board of Trustees, we expanded wi-fi connectivity in both Merced and Los Banos, and created new outdoor seating areas to allow students to spread out and stay safe. Nearly every classroom was upgraded with state-of-the-art technology, with live streaming options and new learning technology tools to complement our already talented team of dedicated and quality faculty.

Thanks in part to a $1 million gift from Susie Downey and her late husband, Col. Russell Downey, our Learning Resource Center has been reimagined and fully renovated, offering students a streamlined experience and a welcoming environment in which they can find all the academic support they need.

Thanks to another recent $1 million gift, this one from the Isakow family, our campus community will soon be able to enjoy the Hermione Isakow Plaza, a beautiful new gathering space near the front of the Merced Campus. We’ve also opened a new center for diversity, equity and inclusion, and a renovated and expanded food pantry, and a new lactation room.

We are continuing to build on our online and hybrid course offerings, but our brick-and-mortar campuses are critical to our success as an institution and for those in the community who prefer this modality. We owe it to our students to give them the best physical environment we possibly can.

Serving our community

We take great pride in our role as a “community” college, and never has that been more true than in this past year. As with much of our best work, our strong partnerships were front and center every step of the way.

That started back in February, when we partnered with Dignity Health-Mercy Medical Center, University of California Health, UC Merced, and other health practitioners and volunteers — including many employee volunteers and Merced College nursing students — to host a series of vaccine clinics in which nearly 7,000 members of our community received vaccinations.

Over the past few weeks, we have again joined with partners like the United Way to distribute thousands of free COVID-19 test kits to Merced County residents, and we will continue to do whatever we can to help our community overcome this pandemic.

And our community partnerships have continued to grow. We recently completed the first cohort of a brand-new Hospitality Career Academy, a partnership with JdV by Hyatt that gives local students the skills they need to advance in hospitality-related fields right here in their own back yard. Community partnerships are also at the core of new programs like truck driving and paramedic training, which should both launch in 2022.

We even have a new food truck on campus that is providing not only delicious lunch options for our campus community, but outstanding learning experiences for our culinary students — and of course, this all came about through yet another community partnership, with local Chef Vinnie DeAngelo.

Being with friends and family

The realities of COVID-19 have also made clear how much we have to be grateful for, and one thing that stands out to me is how grateful I am to simply be with others in-person. Even behind masks, there is something about the tangible feeling of being in the presence of friends and family that is impossible to replace.

We were extremely fortunate at Merced College to be able to hold some very meaningful events in-person again in 2021. The first was a small gathering in early May to celebrate the groundbreaking of the new Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex. Later that month, we hosted in-person graduation ceremonies for the first time since 2019, a daunting feat that our staff pulled off with flying colors.

In the fall, we held an in-person Convocation to welcome faculty and classified professionals back to campus, and a community kickoff event to welcome our new men’s and women’s soccer programs. Our State of the College event in October felt like nothing short of a family reunion for our community partners and friends. And in early November, we celebrated the 50th anniversary our Los Banos Campus with an extremely well attended event with great food and even better weather.

Every one of these events was held under the specter of the pandemic, but they all went off without a hitch, and it meant so much to us to be able to reconnect with our students, our entire campus community, and our friends and supporters. I will forever remember 2021 as the year we came back together.

Looking to the future

Predicting what might happen in 2022 feels like a true exercise in futility, but waiting around for the future to happen to us is not in our DNA. We will continue to plan, and we will continue to aspire to bigger and better things for our students and for our community.

High schoolers will still be looking to jumpstart their academic and professional careers, and we will be here for them. Students transferring to four-year universities will still want a streamlined, robust and rigorous community college experience, and we will be here for them. Working professionals will still be looking for new ways to advance in their careers, and we will be here for them. Community partners and industry leaders will still want a nimble and responsive approach to meet their current and future workforce training needs, and we will be here for them.

People want to learn and grow, and this will never change — nor will our commitment to support them in any way we can as they navigate their journeys.

When change inevitably arises, we will rise to meet it on the strength of all we have learned from our past challenges. We will remain true to our values, and we will not waver from our mission to grow our community through education and workforce training, and to ensure student success through equitable access, continuous quality improvement, institutional effectiveness, and student achievement.

Chris Vitelli, Ed.D., is president of Merced College.