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Court ruling expands Merced County scholarship opportunities through Virginia Smith Trust

Merced County Office of Education

MERCED, Calif. – A scholarship fund connected to one of Merced County’s earliest families is being expanded to benefit more students from across the county who pursue higher education.

Since its inception in 1976, the Virginia Smith Trust scholarship has provided $6 million to 3,700 students in the City of Merced. Under a Merced County Superior Court ruling last week, however, the scholarships will be made available to qualified students from across Merced County.

“This is a tremendous milestone for the Virginia Smith Trust and one that will benefit students across Merced County for generations to come,” Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen said in a statement.

Virginia Smith was born in Merced to a family that had settled in the area in the 1850s. When Smith died in 1971, she declared in her will that her family’s land should support the education of “worthy, deserving and needy students.”

More than 7,000 acres of land north of Merced was included in the Virginia Smith Trust. Later, part of it was donated to establish the University of California, Merced. Most of the remaining portion of 650 acres on Lake Road near the campus is used for farming, generating $100,000 to $250,000 a year in revenue that supports scholarships, Tietjen told CVJC.

With the UC Merced campus driving growth on the north side of the city, plans are underway to annex the land into Merced city limits. The trust land is expected to be developed into a university community, complete with housing, shopping, restaurants and schools, among other amenities, that would dramatically increase revenue to a projected $2 million a year by 2026, Tietjen said.

When the Smith land was donated to create UC Merced, the Merced community promised the UC Regents to expand the trust scholarship program to serve the county’s most underserved students, many living in the county’s smaller, more rural communities, Tietjen said.

Merced Union High School District Superintendent Alan Peterson, whose district includes 10 schools in Merced, Atwater and Livingston, said the court ruling to expand the trust scholarships will provide Merced County students with an opportunity unlike any other in the state of California.

"The ruling will have a significant impact on every college-bound student in our district,” he said in a statement. “As the trust develops and grows, students from all our schools (and countywide) will have access to scholarship dollars like never before.”

Trustees on the Merced County Office of Education board serve as the trustees of the Virginia Smith Trust. The board’s goal is to support eligible students across Merced County in perpetuity, according to Nathan Quevedo, an MCOE spokesperson.

The trust board will decide next year whether it can afford to expand eligibility to countywide students as early as 2024, Tietjen said. Students attending high school in communities such as Los Banos, Le Grand, Hilmar and Gustine could become eligible. How many students will benefit from the expansion will depend on the number of graduating high school seniors who meet admission requirements and attend a four-year university in California.

Last year, trust scholarships worth $20,000 over four years were awarded to 17 students; another 35 students received $3,500 each; and 11 were awarded $2,500.

Current eligibility requirements state applicants must have at least a high school GPA of 3.0; meet class requirements for UC admission; and have lived in Merced and attended a Merced high school for at least three years. Eligibility also requires students to attend a California college as a full-time student.

“The fund has the potential to change the lives of so many, and we will forever be in Virginia Smith’s debt,” Tietjen said. “Every student that attends high school in Merced County and qualifies for a four year college has a ‘Great Aunt Virginia’ that is making college possible.”

This story was reported and edited by the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, cvlocaljournalism.org, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced, CA.

Brianna Vaccari is an accountability and watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2021 by the James B. McClatchy Foundation.