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UC Merced Professors Honored for Work with First-Generation Students

September 24, 2018
From left: Anna Song, UC President Janet Napolitano, Jennifer Manilay

UC Merced psychology Professor Anna Song and biology Professor Jennifer Manilay had a special dinner with UC President Janet Napolitano at her Oakland home recently to honor the faculty members for their work on first-generation student initiatives.

All faculty in attendance, including Song and Manilay, were themselves first-generation students who either conduct research on related issues or head campus programs at Northern California UC campuses: Davis, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Merced. Song and Manilay are members of UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute, which promotes all research in the human health sciences to improve awareness, advocacy and action around health and health disparities.

“I enjoyed the dinner very much,” Manilay said.

Song said it was an amazing honor to be invited to the dinner and she felt a sense of pride when Napolitano and UC Provost Michael Brown spoke of UC Merced’s accomplishments with first-generation initiatives. Song added that Napolitano and Brown rotated tables between meal courses to spend time with each of the universities’ representatives.

UC Merced has the highest percentage of first-generation students in the UC system — more than 73 percent, which is double the national average.

Founding faculty member Manilay, with the School of Natural Sciences, encounters first-generation students through her introductory and upper-division biology courses and her roles as a faculty advisor and mentor in her research laboratory.

Manilay is also the program director of the first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant that UC Merced has received. In July, the university was one of 33 schools selected to join the HHMI Inclusive Excellence initiative and will receive $1 million over the next five years to test a new undergraduate biological sciences curriculum — one that’s more inclusive of underrepresented and non-traditional students.

Manilay said she takes pride in creating an environment that helps students follow their passions and reach their full potential because she had a professor who was an “academic cheerleader” for her while she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.

“From my conversations with students, I have heard first-hand how they feel their academic achievements will elevate their individual status, but also the status of their families and even communities,” Manilay said. “I feel that fostering high-quality interactions between faculty and students can have significant impact on the student experience, inside and outside the classroom.”

Manilay (left) and Song speaking with dinner attendees

Song, who is part of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts (SSHA), said her own experience as a first-generation student has created the mission she preaches in her health disparities classes and as a mentor in her research lab.

“I’m teaching myself from 20 years ago,” said Song, who is the director of the new UC Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center, which received a $3.8 million grant in July. “That was me.”

She said she encourages students to go beyond the goal of just receiving a diploma and obtain the tools that will make them successful in life. She helps students craft “life budgets” and five-year plans while considering what experiences can help them on their pathways. Those experiences, she said, will help cultivate the next generation of scholars, researchers and other professions with a sense of empathy toward first-generation students like themselves.

“That was something that really wasn’t communicated to me as a first-generation college student,” Song said. “I was just always told to get the degree and you’re fine. The goal isn’t the degree; the goal is to develop these life skills and to be able to find out where your place is in the world to utilize those skills.”

In August 2017, the UC system launched a systemwide first-generation faculty effort designed to bring together first-generation UC students with faculty mentors who were themselves the first in their families to graduate with four-year college degrees.

Napolitano said learning about faculty members’ backgrounds and how their efforts are benefitting the lives of first-generation students in the UC system is of utmost interest to her and helps her advance her discussions with key advocates and stakeholders.