UC Merced Connect: Visit inspires students to aim for UCs

For Melissa Ugaldes and many San Joaquin Valley high school students like her, a University of California education might not be an obvious option. That’s why leaders from UC Merced visited Madera South High School recently to speak to 11th- and 12th-graders as part of a program called Achieve UC.

“I never really thought about attending a UC because I will be the first one in my family to go to college,” said Ugaldes, a senior at Madera South. “It was really eye-opening and fun. Now, I realize I do have a good chance to get in there.”

Top leaders from all 10 UC campuses have visited high schools across the state this fall, delivering the message that college is attainable.

“Some of you may think college is out of reach for you. You may think it is too expensive and you can’t afford it, and that the University of California may be out of reach for you,” UC Merced Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Thomas Peterson said. “If you’re willing to give your best possible effort, I can assure you that there will be ample resources available to you at UC Merced.”

Nearly 400 Madera South and Madera high school students learned about the application process and received personalized transcripts that highlight where they stand and the specific courses they need for admission to California’s public four-year colleges.

They were given information about grants and scholarships designed to make college affordable to all Californians, including the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which covers the full cost of tuition for students whose families earn $80,000 a year or less.

Madera Unified Superintendent Edward Gonzalez said the outreach event was a great way for students to learn more about the resources available to them.

“I think that true education is exposure,” Gonzalez said. “When students have an opportunity to be exposed to new ideas, a new possibility in life – that is what education should be to them.”

Undergraduate students interested in attending the UC Merced in Fall 2014 can apply online at through Nov.30.

Grad student finds calling in medical research

Graduate student Portia Mira has always liked helping people and learning, especially since she found refuge in school from a dysfunctional home life.

She focuses on taking care of others, including her younger, disabled sister. Her work at UC Merced is no different.

By researching antibiotics with Professor Miriam Barlow and School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza, she gets to help people with their real-life health problems.

Mira, Barlow and Meza research resistance genes in mutated and antibiotic-resistant E. coli, and are looking for a way to drive the bacteria back to its original state, in which it was vulnerable to basic antibiotics. The hope is to help cure the E. coli infection and learn how to drive other bacterial infections back to that vulnerable state, because bacteria have rapidly evolved to resist conventional medicines.

“The medical field – and human health in general – really piques my interest. I really want to be able to have an impact on people and the community at large, whether it is through direct contact with patients in a hospital or doing research that could be used in a hospital to treat patients,” Mira said. “I have just found my place in the ‘background’ so to speak, with research that I hope will make it to the community.”

Medical research is hard work, but that’s nothing new to Mira.

The daughter of two drug-addicted parents, she grew up in foster care with a disabled younger sister to look after. A lot of kids in foster care don’t do well in school, but for Mira, it was an escape.

“I took school as a way out of my regular life and responsibilities,” she said. “I love learning – it’s something I have always loved.”