"There is no education like adversity." - Benjamin Disraeli

Each day, we are getting an education in a shared yet scattered “classroom” that few could have envisioned. We’ve received lessons about resilience, patience and turning on a dime. It’s not where we expected to be at this moment, but here we are. And the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic by the UC Merced community deserves top grades all around.

At the time of publication of this spring edition of Inside UC Merced, we are more than three weeks into fully remote instruction. Students sheltered in homes throughout California are connecting with faculty and advisors while everyone learns about this “new normal.” A small number of students remain on campus and are being looked after by housing, dining and custodial staff who follow new protocols of distancing and sanitizing.

Meanwhile, hundreds of us are adjusting to the rhythms of working remotely. Grownups and their kids are together all day. Pretty neat. Pretty challenging. Breakfast nooks, dens and coffee tables became offices. We link with our colleagues via email, Zoom, Skype and texts. Meetings are chessboards of faces familiar but changed. Beards have appeared. Hair is grown out, pulled back or, in a few cases, buzzed away.

Though it all, we have proved the San Joaquin Valley’s only research university has the collective will and dedication to rise above extraordinary circumstances. This edition of Inside UC Merced is a tribute to the incredible work that continues despite the challenges thrown our way. As Interim Chancellor Nathan Brostrom says in the video, we remain #BobcatProud.

I’m here to help serve the students, faculty and staff who still need to eat.


Passing a Test of Continuity and Community

It’s been more than a month since UC Merced education began migrating to remote delivery, and since all but “designated” employees were told to work offsite while the university deals with the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to operating a campus, with more than 200 students still in residence — and that means a lot of front-line staff at their posts day in and day out.

Tony Paulino and Rosa Sandoval are among those keeping campus clean and safe. Paulino has been redeployed from upper campus, working mostly in academic buildings, to focus on residence halls.

The Pavilion is still serving fresh meals as well. “We need to feed the students who are here, give them a sense of normalcy,” Mario Trujillo said as he oversaw card swipes at the entrance. The Pavilion has lowered its prices and allows residential students to bring food back to their rooms for the entire day if they choose, or drop in at regular mealtimes for takeout.

It's the same sentiment expressed by Aaron Winek as he fills a reusable takeout container proffered by sophomore Malba Espinol.

“I’m here to help serve the students, faculty and staff who still need to eat,” Winek said with a smile.

Scott Leppla, associate director of residence education, praised the team effort that keeps students housed and well-fed during the pandemic.

“I’m proud to be working with folks committed to solving resident housing problems,” Leppla said. “RAs, custodians, facilities staff, RLCs and the desk staff have really put in the effort to find creative ways to keep things operating and safe for those who need to be on campus.”

Lisa Perry at the Student First Center and her staff come to the campus on occasion, though the work they do — answering student questions, helping navigate the financial side of campus life — is largely by phone, email, web forms and online chats. They employ 15 to 20 students to help their peers and share information through social media, but the center’s message has been consistent since before the pandemic: “We’re here for you, and we’ve got you covered,” Perry said.

Accessing remote learning and other services requires technology, and a staff from the Office of Information Technology is on hand in COB1 to help faculty and students stay connected.

“We’re handling mostly hardware issues — we can’t troubleshoot that remotely,” said Jonathan Garache, who works with Jose Gonzalez and Joseph Rodriguez on equipment repairs and upgrades.

Rodriguez says the team just finished imaging loaner laptops for engineering students — the university has offered laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots and other necessary tools for students who need them during the pandemic.

They maintain careful social distancing, Garache said, and extend those cautions to working on the hardware. “Most of what we handle — 90 percent of it — is brand new, out of the box.”

One building over, on the first floor of COB2, rooms have been taken over by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which manages crisis response for the campus. All major campus divisions and units are represented among the spread-out inhabitants of the center, who must pass a body-temperature screening every day to enter.

Police Chief Chou Her said there is value in bringing the group together to work. “Not everything can be done remotely,” he said, “and there’s a synergy to being in the same space, sharing ideas.”

Andrew Boyd, executive director of the Center for Institutional Effectiveness, is at the EOC to help think through UC Merced’s future direction and options. “We’re collaborating to adjust both campus operations and emergency response, and support our students and the academic mission,” he said.

“Everyone has different abilities, different expertise,” noted Officer Enrique Rodriguez, who takes shifts in the EOC.

His fellow public safety workers are at work keeping the campus safe, including handing out face coverings for their fellow designated employees. “The campus bubble of security isn’t created on its own,” Rodriguez said.

As is fitting for an institution of higher learning, employees on the ground are receiving valuable lessons from their work during the crisis.

“I’m really learning how things get done,” said Rodriguez, a UC Merced officer for three years.

“You don’t realize how much behind-the-scenes work happens. For instance, when there’s a PUI (person under investigation for potential COVID-19), someone has to feed that person, someone has to clean the room, someone has to dispose of the trash, someone has to keep checking in on that person, whether by phone or in person.”

In the EOC, said Jordan Thaw, a records analyst from the Office of Legal Affairs, “my biggest takeaway is: We are learning patience … and I’m learning how quickly we have to make these decisions, and how much we learn as we go.”