Lenny Mendonca: The Power of the Central Valley

This past spring, I had the pleasure of delivering the commencement speech to the University of California, Merced’s largest graduating class. Looking out at the sea of graduates and their families, I was thrilled and humbled. Having grown up in the Valley, I know that pursuing higher education is often elusive for rural, minority, and low-income families.   

To illustrate the degree of economic inequality many residents of the Valley face, if California were split into separate states, the Bay Area would be the richest state in the country and Merced would be in the poorest. The two cities in the nation with the largest portion of the population living in extreme poverty are both in the Central Valley. That is not acceptable in the state with the fifth largest economy in the world.

There are lights that shine brightly in the Valley. UC Merced is an example of how higher education can support the dreams of California’s students from all backgrounds.

Lenny Mendonca, California Competes Leadership Council

From left: Mark Matsumoto, Dean, School of Engineering; Lenny Medonca; Elizabeth Dumont, Dean, School of Natural Sciences

But, there are lights that shine brightly in the Valley. UC Merced is an example of how higher education can support the dreams of California’s students from all backgrounds. At UC Merced, 71 percent of students speak a language other than English at home, 71 percent are first-generation college students, and 61 percent come from low-income families.

A recent New York Times article, You’ve heard of Berkeley. Is Merced the future of the University of California?, painted a picture of a unique place where opportunity is abundant for a student population that mirrors a changing California. I encourage you to read it. 

The Central Valley is the heart of California’s economy, producing almost all of the state’s non-tropical crops, which are the primary source for a number of food products throughout the United States. But the Valley’s potential is far greater than its agricultural significance.  We see that at UC Merced, a gem in California whose students reflect the future of our state.

California Competes’ recent report, Opportunity Imbalance: Race, Gender and California’s Education-to-Employment Pipeline, shows an analysis of outcomes by region including the disparity in economic outcomes between urban and rural regions. These are opportunity gaps we must close. 

I encourage us, as a state, to make investments and policy changes in our higher education system that help level the opportunity imbalance, and allow all Californians to contribute to our shared economy and create their best lives.

Credit: Veronica Adrover for UC Merced

Guess what: California, the US, and indeed the world needs the Valley’s leadership.

Read Lenny Mendonca’s full commencement speech in the Modesto Bee.  


Lenny Mendonca serves as member of the California Competes Leadership Council and also serves on the UC Merced Board of Trustees. Read his full bio here