by Peter Schurmann/New America Media
When Benny Escobedo moved with his family from Long Beach to Merced, located in the heart of California’s Central Valley, six years ago, their financial fortunes took a turn for the better. Now a sophomore at the University of California at Merced, Escobedo is working to give something back to his adopted home.
“People generally want to get out of the Central Valley to improve their financial situation. For us it was the opposite,” said the 19-year-old biology major.
Escobedo plans to go into medicine, and says he’d like to remain in Merced to help fill what he sees as a widening gap between demand for health services and what’s now available.
“Here in Merced, the biggest hospital is Mercy Medical Center,” he noted. “It’s known as a level 3 hospital; they don’t have neurosurgeons or specialized doctors. If something really bad happens, you have to fly out to the nearest hospital.”
Pointing to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the expected surge in insured residents seeking medical care, Escobedo adds, “I want to stay in the Central Valley because I know the medical opportunities are going to grow here.”
While the Central Valley is the agricultural heartland of California, the area is also marked by rampant poverty that is especially pronounced in migrant farm working communities throughout the region. Access to health care and health education for these communities is limited.
The child of Mexican immigrants and a fluent Spanish speaker, Escobedo is well suited to the task of delivering care to the area’s predominantly Latino community. He is one of a number of young people around California committed to using their college experience to serve the communities they call home.
Escobedo was in middle school when his family settled in the mostly agricultural town of Atwater, located 8 miles north of Merced up Highway 99, six years ago. His father landed a job that offered better benefits and a better salary, he explains, allowing his mom to remain at home and focus on helping Escobedo and his younger sister with their studies.
The effort paid off. When it came time to apply for college, Escobedo received acceptance letters from three UC schools – Davis, Irvine and Merced. He chose the latter, he says, for a variety of reasons, including the school’s smaller size and its proximity to a community he was just then beginning to discover.
“I really did my research,” Escobedo says when it came time to decide. “Merced was smaller … I knew it would be easier to get around. It also presented a lot of opportunities to connect with professors, more so than at a larger campus.”
This year marks ten years since UC Merced opened its doors. The school is now looking to up enrollment from its current 6,800 students to 10,000 by the end of the decade. The newest of the nine-campus UC system, Merced was built in part to attract students like Escobedo who live in the Central Valley area, and according to recent enrollment data it looks to be doing just that.
Over 40 percent of UC Merced students hail from cities in the Central Valley, while some 43 percent of students in the school are Latino. That figure compares to an average of just 11 percent at the other UC campuses.
But Escobedo says ties are not as strong as they could be between the UC Merced campus and the community. “Some [students] have said they don’t feel a part of the city … while some residents feel the students just come to study and move on,” explained Escobedo, who is currently working on a story about the issue for a local youth-led newspaper, We-Ced.
He says other students have told him Merced needs to be more youth oriented, and to offer more jobs for young people. “It is hard for young people to find a job in Merced,” he acknowledged. Youth unemployment in Merced is nearly twice the state average. The area also has the highest rate of child poverty in the state.
Still, he notes there are students who come from larger cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles who appreciate Merced’s small-town feel. “I’ve met students who say they really like it and would love to raise a family here.”
For Escobedo, being at UC Merced brought him closer to the community. In addition to his reporting, he also volunteers at the local hospital. “When I was in high school I wasn’t really that involved,” he said. “Now that I am at UC Merced, I’m in the community all the time.”