By the end of the 2022-23 academic year, Merced College’s Los Banos campus will have grown by an entire building and, for the first time in its history, a full graduation ceremony.
“Our students get a top-quality, reasonably priced education right here in their community, and now they get to have their graduation where they attended classes, too,” Los Banos Campus Dean of Instruction Jessica Moran said.
That moment, which will arrive May 25, comes in part because the area is evolving.
The city of Los Banos has grown by roughly 10,000 residents every 10 years since 1990. As a farming hotbed and a bedroom community to the Bay Area, it also has unique education and workforce needs that will demand attention in the coming decades.
“We need to adapt by investing a lot of dollars here,” Moran said. “President Chris Vitelli’s vision is that the Westside is where [the Merced Community College District] has room to grow.”
The campus will soon gain an outdoor gym, allowing the addition of three in-person kinesiology courses. A new campus café will provide hot meals and alleviate food insecurities.
New faculty will be added in critical fields like welding (immediate employment for graduates), computer technology and information systems (expanding cybersecurity field), and the college’s well-regarded, popular agriculture programs.
Finally, construction of a new Child Development Center, for both childcare and training, will be completed this summer.
Vitelli has spent weeks working with staff and students in Los Banos this academic year to understand the campus’s needs and prioritize changes.
“One of the beautiful things is that the investment will reap a lot of long-term gains,” Moran said. “We can get more students in the door and then out into the workforce, transferring to colleges or wherever they desire. We’ll gain more attention. I hope the community will continue to support us in this new era.”
The Los Banos graduation ceremony will replace a smaller merit and awards celebration in which students received scholarships and faculty recognized the Student of the Year. Before now, students looking for a traditional graduation experience could only walk at the Merced ceremony.
Felicia Jones, Student Services Manager in Los Banos, helped organize the 2022 graduation in Merced, so she was the natural choice to replicate the event in Los Banos for 2023.
“The ceremonies will be nearly exactly the same,” Jones said. “It’s just a smaller space. We’re using the same graduation RSVP system, and we’ll have the big video wall with everyone’s information. We will have name readers, anthem singers, speakers, everything.”
Jones knows a graduation gives the campus a chance to forge its own identity. So she was relieved when the college auditioned national anthem singers during “Merced Idol” in March and found both Los Banos and Merced students who were interested.
Some 214 graduates are eligible to receive diplomas at the Los Banos ceremony. They can also choose to participate in the Merced ceremony instead.
“We’re hoping all of our students decide to participate here, because there is no [limit] on guests,” Jones said. “Older family members won’t have to climb stadium steps. And students will go down in history as the first to do this here.”
Everyone on the Los Banos Campus deserves to swim in pomp and circumstance.
It’s been a long time coming for students like Elena Altamirano-Orozco, also the Admissions & Records Coordinator in Los Banos, who is completing a transfer degree in Business Administration this semester.
Altamirano-Orozco earned an A.A. from Merced College in Spring 2018. But while a full-time employee and a continuing student in Fall 2018, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. She had just been promoted to coordinator, and she lost a year of study while recovering.
“I am not supposed to be here,” she said. “The moral of the story is Los Banos is a close-knit community. I have the privilege of receiving guidance from counselors as a student. They’re also my colleagues, who encouraged me during a tremendously difficult time in my life.”
She could walk in graduation, but will be working instead.
“We wear many hats here; I also work on planning events like graduation,” she said. “I take pride in that work. It doesn’t take anything away from me to skip graduation. I love planning it so others [can experience it].
“I am happy to be finishing my degree. But to see students who stuck it out during the pandemic achieve this moment, I’m having a lot of other emotions, too. The campus is small, but our students are doing big things. They’ll now be rewarded.”
Preparations for graduation will continue right up to the event. Jones has been gazing at the Child Development Center site off and on this month, wondering how to make the construction dirt piles look “prettier.”
“We’re gonna pull it off,” she said.
Moran has been so busy, she hadn’t yet prepared the remarks she will deliver as dean. But she stills allow herself a moment here and there to appreciate the historic nature of the event.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” the Los Banos native said. “I remember being dragged to campus as a youngster when my cousin came to school here and there was no one to babysit. It’s a full-circle thing for me to realize this has finally come to my community.”