MERCED — Successful businesswoman Margo Souza, 74, can think of a million reasons to go to college.
Now, she's turning those reasons into action by donating $1 million to UC Merced. The money will be used to establish a leadership center in Souza's name inside UC Merced's office of student life.
It was a college degree that opened doors for Souza, a Turlock native who spent 24 years as a nurse and 30 years in the dairy industry.
Souza made a name for herself as the president and chief executive officer of Turlock's Circle H Dairy Ranch Inc., finding success in a key Central Valley industry typically dominated by men.
The pioneering dairywoman said helping students find their voice through leadership training is something that's very close to her heart.
"If you're a leader, you can fit in anywhere," Souza said. "Those team-building skills will transfer when students go to work or if they own their own business."
It's especially important for Central Valley students to think like entrepreneurs, Souza said, because they can provide hope for a region where jobs are scarce.
"There's not going to be jobs for all the UC Merced graduates," she said. "How are they going to enrich the valley if they can't find a job here or start their own business?
"But if you educate people, it will eventually change the Central Valley, and more businesses will come here because our students will be qualified to take those jobs," Souza added.
UC Merced officials said the donation will broaden the leadership programs already in place, while adding a new emphasis on entrepreneur training.
"We think that it's really important for our students, because we want them to stay here in the valley," Chancellor Dorothy Leland said. "So it's important for them to know how to start up new businesses and take their ideas and inventions to the marketplace."
Souza, who retired after selling her dairy six months ago, wants to be involved in the training programs. "That's really one of my goals," she said. "Volunteering my time and hopefully having an impact on young people in the Central Valley."
This isn't the first time that Souza has made a donation to UC Merced. For her 70th birthday, the Turlock resident asked for money instead of gifts. She donated every penny $2,000 total to the school of engineering.
Souza said she picked UC Merced for the donation because it's still evolving, and because she liked the school's philosophy during her visits.
"I really love how they take care of students," she said. "They're innovative and they really want to help these students. It goes with my value system treat people right."
Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said the $1 million donation will affect future generations of UC Merced students, especially as the university strives to reach its goal of 10,000 students by 2020.
"As we develop more majors, we can use that funding in the future to develop more leadership experiences for our students," she said.
"One of the hopes in putting the UC here in the valley was to help diversify the economy, and we want our students to be leaders in whatever they do after college," Lawrence added.
Souza, who graduated from Seattle University in 1964, was the first in her family to go to college. An estimated 58 percent of UC Merced undergraduate students are the first in their families to attend college, and Souza has some advice for them.
"Set your education goals and don't let anyone stop you. Put your head down and go," Souza said. "If you're doing something and you're afraid, it means you're taking a risk. Don't be afraid to be afraid."