UC Merced Professors Honored for Work with First-Generation Students

September 24, 2018

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.”