MERCED — Last September, the first students at University of California at Merced crossed a bridge.
They walked across the span over Scholars Lane, onto a new campus with buildings still under construction.
Eight months later, they've crossed another bridge — from nervous high school students to University of California students.
"Sometimes, it doesn't fully sink in, the importance of what we're doing," said Richard Ravalli, 31, a graduate student from Turlock. "We're helping build a brand-new university. It's going to have a big impact on this part of the valley."
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The process hasn't always been easy, or fun. But as the first three UC Merced graduates walked back across the Scholars Lane bridge Thursday morning, they represented the last of the firsts for the campus's opening year.
In September, Uday Bali was a nervous sophomore who transferred from Modesto Junior College. He stood outside one of his first classes, wide-eyed, like he had a whole swarm of butterflies in his gut.
Eight months later, Bali, now 20, beat four other candidates to be elected student director of academic affairs. He takes more than a full load of classes and tutors other students. He helped found the Asian Students Club, which has raised $3,000.
"I used to just be into my studies," Bali said. "I'd keep my head down. I never imagined I'd run for office. But I've learned more this year than in the last 19. I've learned how to talk to people and to have the confidence to express my opinions to people."
Performing at UC level
The students have learned how to learn, said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs. They've learned to perform at a UC level.
But equally important, "They've learned to be leaders," she said.
Marsha Bond, 31, from Ceres, transferred as a junior from MJC. She co-founded Stomp, a campus musical percussion group, works on the student transfer program, gives campus tours, and helped form the first student government and get the campus newspaper off the ground.
"First semester, it was opening day and then, boom, it was finals. The first semester was hard — very hard — learning where the classes were and how to get things done. Everything was always changing," Bond said.
Now, she said, there's a bit of a been-there-done-that attitude that will help upperclassmembers guide new students as they join the university.
When it officially opened on Labor Day, the campus was a blank slate in many ways. All the basics were in place — student housing, the dining commons, the library, student services. But the students had to embellish their new environment.
They formed more than 40 clubs, focused on student interests such as philosophy, martial arts, creative writing and business. They wrote a student constitution, elected their first student officers, held dances, field trips, ethnic events and study groups, and crossed a bridge into a town that was quite foreign to many of them.
"Some of the students joke that there are more cows than students," Ravalli said.
It might be true. There are fewer than 900 students at UC Merced this year, and there still are acres of farmland around the campus. A herd of bovines was one of the first things visitors saw near the college entrance on graduation day. And one day last fall, students reported finding a dead cow in the Lake Yosemite park next to the campus.
They've dealt with the cows, a library elevator that gets stuck between floors on occasion, campus trams that regularly get flat tires, and the sound of hammers, saws and heavy equipment as they walk to classes. For the first semester, most classes took place in the library, and sometimes professors would have to wait while students stared out the windows at workmen climbing past their second-floor windows like hard-hatted Spidermen.
The winter's heavy rains slowed construction. The Lantern, a three-story connector between the two library wings, was supposed to open last fall, but was just completed a couple of months ago. The recreation center and gym are scheduled to open this fall, but as Lawrence said, fall is a season, not a specific date.
Everyone on campus had to deal with constant scrutiny. The media has become such a fixture that at graduation Thursday, the deans, administrators and faculty on the auditorium stage waited for newspaper and TV photographers to get their shots before sitting down and starting the ceremony.
They faced the computer systems that never had been tested, and chose to do everything from class planning to job applications online.
"You're part of the first version of everything," said philosophy Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi. "You're part of the group saying 'This could be better.'"
UC Merced will be different as new students, staff and faculty members arrive, majors and minors are added, the community begins to grow nearer the campus, policies and procedures are cemented and refined, and the university's influence on the surrounding communities becomes more noticeable.
One thing that doesn't seem to vary, however, is the campus enthusiasm — a bridge the students, faculty and staff have built for future generations.
"Every week, every day, something changes," Bali said. "But I'm still just as excited. This is a home away from home for me, and I want to try to make it that way for everyone else, too."
Bee staff writer Lorena Anderson can be reached at 667-1227 or email@example.com.