Over the weekend, I was honored to give the commencement address to UC Merced’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. Looking out at the sea of faces from the dais, I could not help but notice one thing: the diversity of the San Joaquin Valley is undoubtedly its strength, and through that strength lies a world of opportunity at the graduates’ fingertips.
The school’s entering class in 2005 was a mere 875 students, but current enrollment – including the graduating class I addressed Saturday – has grown tenfold, to nearly 8,000. Among them were students majoring in anthropology, public health, economics and cognitive science – the careers of the future nestled right here in the Central Valley. Less than 15 years after the school opened its doors, it continues growing, accomplishing, evolving, mattering.
The story of UC Merced is the story of today’s California. The majority of students are the first in their families to attend college, and come from all corners of California – from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area to Southern California and everywhere in between. Their ethnic backgrounds are 53 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian, 10 percent Caucasian, and 5 percent African-American – a truly diverse gathering.
It was humbling to see students with so many different personal stories and experiences continue to live, work and study in Merced side by side.
As a native of Colombia with two children who are first-generation Americans, I know firsthand what these accomplishments mean to parents who never dreamed of the heights to which their kids could soar. I began my career in communications, and rose to become a leading voice on immigration and Latino issues in multiple federal agencies and nationwide presidential campaigns. I have lived the American dream, and the graduates of UC Merced are on their way to joining me.
Yet the class of 2018 is entering a world at a turning point, where old norms are being broken by the day and where certainties of the past can no longer be taken for granted.
The workforce is facing the changing structures of automation and the gig economy, while our political institutions are facing gridlock and chaos not seen in my lifetime.
UC Merced also has the highest percentage of undocumented students among all the University of California campuses, including much larger universities like Berkeley and UCLA, and the fate of so many of these students hangs in the balance. The advice I gave them is advice I would offer to anyone in their shoes: civic discourse has an impact now more than ever, so raise your voices because your country needs you.
Whatever it is you choose to do, make sure it matters.
The land where UC Merced sits today was settled by Spanish explorers in the 1800s, and it is where I was proud to send off the impressive class of 2018. The origin of the city’s name – the Merced River, known as El Río de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, or “River of our Lady of Mercy” in English – got its name after settlers came upon an oasis of water after a long, dry, arduous journey. This weekend’s graduates are also ending one long and, at times, difficult journey, but are well prepared to begin another.
Saturday, the San Joaquin Valley and the Merced community welcomed with me with open arms, and I hope the world does the same to these impressive young men and women.
Maria Cardona is a principal at DSG, founder of Latinovations and works as a political commentator for CNN and CNN en Español. She has also appeared on MSNBC, FOX, Univision and Telemundo. She was a Senior Advisor and spokesperson for the Hillary Clinton Campaign in 2008.