Merrill College: Embracing individuality and cultural identities

Merrill College values diversity, inclusion, and experiential learning

Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams
Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams
Merrill College at dusk
Merrill College at dusk
A snapshot of some of the murals on display at the Merrill Moat
Murals on display at the Merrill Moat

Awareness, inclusion, activism, and leadership are the hallmarks of Merrill College. It’s no wonder that Merrill affiliates describe their college with loyalty and affection. 

Everywhere you look at this centrally located and robust college community, you will find examples of diverse academic programs and hands-on learning opportunities. 

“I loved Merrill College from the first moment I stepped foot on it, on move-in day of my freshman year,” said student and Merrill Student Government Chair Alexa Manning (Merrill ‘22, ecology and evolutionary biology). “I immediately felt welcome and part of a family ever since.” 

Merrill is an inviting and well-shaded place, occupying a redwood grove shared by Crown College on one of campus's largest hills. Students who are seeking a strenuous workout can access the place by hiking the path known as Cardiac Hill—a walkway that deserves its comical (but slightly scary) nickname. 

Merrill was founded in 1968 when the family trust of Charles J. Merrill Jr. provided a $650,000 gift to UCSC. 

Merrill Jr.’s philanthropic visions aligned with the plans of Merrill’s founding faculty, who envisioned a community that valued interdisciplinary education, social issues, and human rights.

Merrill’s overarching ethos

Merrill’s course curriculum builds on the theme, “Exploring Cultural Identities & Raising Global Consciousness.” By taking a multidisciplinary approach, Merrill courses allow students to analyze different societies and cultures.

“Merrill affiliates examine the world through a dual lens, one being a lens of understanding our own identities and the other taking an open-minded approach of the world around us,” said Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams, a senior teaching professor in Merrill’s writing program.

That dual-lens approach gives students a strong ethical commitment, while helping them to understand how changes in the developing world unfold in relation to the developed world. 

The core class at Merrill, known as College 1, is designed to fine-tune students’ analytical and critical skills, along with their powers of “metacognition,” an awareness of one’s own thought processes. Students sharpen those skills by having intensive discussions on topics ranging from self identity to social justice. 

As Abrams noted, students adopt the mindset of being a “learner” instead of a “knower” when they step into the core course class. Here, you will find the opposite of rote-learning methods that sometimes give education a bad name. The overarching goal is teaching young scholars how to think, not what to think. 


Merrill College students, sometimes nicknamed Merrillites, are a diverse group. 

Merrill students major in a variety of disciplines, but the two most common major divisions are science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and social science—with a sizable social science population majoring in one of the three departments housed on the Merrill campus: politics, legal studies, and Latin American and Latino studies (LALS).

The campus is remote enough to maintain its own identity, yet centrally located enough so students don’t have to wear themselves out heading to Science Hill, or Quarry Plaza, or other hotspots on campus. 

Stroll around Merrill, and you will see outdoor study groups, picnics, and socializing at every turn. 

“The Merrill Plaza is always full of students whether they are sunbathing on the lawn or having group study sessions at the tables in front of Vivas restaurant,” said student Manning.

The college has a slightly futuristic look, with its impressive, criss-crossing bridges and its sweeping views of forests. It also has a vibrant, interactive, and ever-growing public-art project that sets it apart from any other landmark on campus. The Merrill Moat is a mural like no other, with roots going back to the beginnings of UC Santa Cruz. 

The moat is an eye-catching pictorial representation of Merrill students, their influences, and values. Walking slowly along this mural, you will get a grand tour of nature imagery, abstract art, and affectionate portraits of civil rights leaders, with inspirational quotes to frame your experience.

This inviting and expansive mural roams across one of the pathway walls located steps away from the Merrill College dorm buildings. This is public art at its best, open and accessible to everyone. 

Advancing Merrill’s core values

Merrill College hosts one of campus’s most exciting projects, the Research Center for the Americas (RCA), which invites students, staff, and faculty to take part in research, events, and dialogue around Latin American cultural experiences. Topics of discussion and research include human rights, education, labor, immigration, and politics. 

The center provides a valuable platform to the campus community to participate in collective inquiry and social activism efforts to advance equal rights for the Latin American population.

In fall of 2016, Merrill College established a trans-inclusive housing program intended for transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, questioning, and ally first-year students. 

Students who apply for this housing program are placed into a positive and affirming living environment for people of all gender identities. The goal is to create a place where students can feel further supported by peers and affiliated staff. 

Merrill also boasts a one-of-a-kind artmaking center, Merrill Pottery Co-Op, a student-run ceramics program. 

“It’s a facility that makes tactile learning and tactile experience available to a wide range of people, particularly students who want to contribute to the arts in a nonacademic setting and are generally non-art majors,” Abrams said. 

While the Co-Op prioritizes Merrill students for membership, students from other colleges are also welcome to apply.

These programs, spearheaded by Merrill College, build on the college’s core values of creating a space where all individuals, regardless of race, identity, or culture, can feel welcome.

Embracing community involvement 

At Merrill, students gain the tools they need to engage with the campus and Santa Cruz communities. 

Merrill Student Government (MSG) handles the funding of Merrill’s academic and residential programs, student-run organizations, and college-wide initiatives. MSG aids in the community culture seen at Merrill and helps keep traditions alive.

“Being a part of Merrill Student Government means being a voice for Merrill affiliates both in-house and out in the wider UCSC community,” said Manning. 

With experiential education learning programs like the Field Study program, Merrillites can make a positive impact. Students get to choose a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County to intern with for the quarter. They then spend their time in the program gaining invaluable skills and applying classroom knowledge to solve social issues experienced or foreseen at the organization. 

A large portion of Merrill alumni go on to make positive changes in their communities through public service careers, carrying out the long-standing Merrill values of creating acceptance and inclusion in the community. 

Even those who did not designate Merrill College as their first college choice often end up falling in love with the place. 

“There is a trend among Merrill students and that is that they end up developing a deep sense of pride for this college,” said Julie Phillips, associate director, college student life.