The sparkling new Hermione Isakow Plaza at Merced College was the site of President Chris Vitelli’s annual State of the College address on Tuesday, May 30.

The Isakow family, whose $1 million donation in 2021 funded the plaza’s design and construction, was presented with the President’s Medallion Award during Tuesday’s event. The medallion is presented each year to the college’s greatest supporters.

The plaza, named for the family’s matriarch, features a large metal sculpture of a Baobab tree. Known as the “tree of life” in the family’s homeland of South Africa, the Baobab provides water and nourishment to elephants, birds and other animals.

McGrath Arts of Mariposa created the 15-foot-tall, galvanized steel sculpture, with 3,000 hand-forged metal leaves on branches that span 20 feet. The sculpture includes 32 lights, nested inside flowers and in a knothole that illuminates an owl. Hermione Isakow was fond of birdwatching, and the family often visited national parks in South Africa.

“The Isakow family represents so much of what is right about our community and our college,” Vitelli said. “They are a close-knit family who value hard work and education. They recognize the importance of investing in their community. And they have done it all with a spirit of humility and generosity that is truly inspiring.”

Nearly 500 community members, supporters and others gathered at the plaza for the president’s annual address, in which Vitelli reflected on recent innovations and looked ahead to the implementation of a new five-year Educational Master Plan to guide the district’s continued growth and evolution.

The new five-year plan will be built around five core strategies: Growth; Student Success; Career Success; Strategic Partnerships; and Student and Employee Engagement.

The college’s advancements in agriculture were noted in Vitelli’s speech, in particular the new Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex and the AgTEC initiative to revolutionize training and education for ag workers.

Vitelli spoke of recent developments and new programs at the Merced College Los Banos Campus, which last week held its inaugural commencement ceremony.

“A new Child Development Center and Early Childhood Development program; new programs in Agriculture and Computer Technology Information Systems; and new weekend offerings in Welding are providing more options and opportunities for Westside students,” Vitelli said. “A new café, a new Welcome Center, a new greenhouse, and a growing array of student services and clubs are on the way.”

Student enrollment is on the rise following a few years of pandemic-driven declines, Vitelli said. Spring 2023 enrollment was up 18% over Spring 2022; Summer 2023 enrollment is nearing record numbers; and Fall 2023 enrollment is up 14% over this time a year ago.

Vitelli also highlighted the economic and societal impact Merced College has on the surrounding community, and noted several inspiring stories of students who participated in recent commencement ceremonies, noting the transformational power of a Merced College education.

“There is simply no better investment a person can make than their own education,” Vitelli said. “And I believe there no better investment a community can make than in their educational institutions.

“I am proud to stand before you today and say: The state of Merced College is very strong, and it continues to grow stronger every year. When I look back at where we’ve been, when I look at where we are today, and when I look ahead to what’s to come, I am overwhelmed by the power of the Merced College story. We are changing lives every day, and transforming our community in the process.”