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Merritt’s Puente Students Join 1,200 Others for Motivational Conference

1 November 2017

Thirty first-semester Merritt students in the Puente Program joined 34 other community college Puente students and their faculty advisors on October 28 for the annual Transfer Motivational Conference at California State University, Sacramento. Along with more than 1,200 “Puentistas” from northern California, they listened to keynote speaker Alex Espinoza (author and professor at Cal State, LA) talk about the transformative effect Puente had on his life 20 years ago.

The students, along with their Merritt faculty team, Evan Nichols (English) and Jose Salceda (Counseling), spent a full day on the university campus attending workshops led by representatives from a wide-range of UCs, CSUs, and private colleges and universities from all over the state. Puente students also chose from an impressive array of afternoon conferences, with topics including “Stress/Self Help,” “Dreamer Resource Center,” “Exploring Health Careers,” “Careers in Criminal Justice,” “Digital Media Art,” “Sports Design and Photography,” and much more.

“This annual conference is at the core of the Puente Program, which has the mission of increasing the number of educationally underserved students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities, earn college degrees, and return to their communities as leaders and mentors,” says Evan Nichols. “The activities took up a 12-hour day and a Saturday, but it was definitely an investment in the future!”

For more information about Puente, contact A. Evan Nichols at or Jose Salcedo at (Photo credit: Birhon Quizhpe)

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Yoga, Teamwork, and Lots of Info Offered at Well-Rounded Flex Day

26 October 2017

(PHOTOS BELOW) The desktop yoga class led by Coach Brock Drazen lent a calming effect to an energetic, creative, and informational Flex Day on October 26 planned by Merritt’s  hard-working Professional Development Committee. Starting off with a test of Merritt knowledge that was aced by the majority of the large crowd of faculty, staff, and administrators, the morning continued with greetings from President Burns and her comprehensive PowerPoint that showed off the college’s many activities and successes from the first-ever Community Day to the enrollment increase in Veterans Services to the upcoming second annual Thanksgiving luncheon for faculty and staff.


Merritt’s PFT team presented the dire issues facing full- and part-time instructors and handed out applications for faculty members who are not union members to sign up on the spot, followed by SEIU rep Molly Sealund with Classified concerns. New facilities director Enrique Villasana talked about campus safety procedures which brought lots of audience participation, and next up was Heather Casale, SLOAC’s head cheerleader, who is looking for the college to give 100 percent! The morning ended with an “interconnectedness” exercise organized by Maria Spencer involving balls of yarn and an inspirational, hands-on lesson on the importance of being part of a great team.


After a hearty Mexican lunch, Flex Day continued in the afternoon with in-depth workshops on nutrition, Canvas, ILOs, business, non-credit classes, OER, emotional intelligence, CurricUNET, supporting yourself so you can support others, and a sabbatical orientation. Thanks to PDC Chair Tom Renbarger and his team of Jason Holloway, Margie Rubio, Samantha Kessler, Regan Pruitt, Maria Suarez Rodriguez, Jose Salceda, and Dr. Lilia Chavez for an educational and enlightening day.








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Community Day Was a Chance to Show Off What Merritt Has to Offer

25 October 2017

With a crowd of community members gathered around them, more than a dozen departments, disciplines and student service representatives gave out program descriptions, promotional items, Merritt bags, and candy, while telling the crowd what a great place Merritt is. Thanks to coordination by Dr. Herbert Kitchen of Student Activities, who also hired a taco truck to offer lunch to the crowd, the day was a big success!






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Spotlight on the President: Perseverance Pays Off!

12 October 2017

When Dr. Marie-Elaine Burns was a San Francisco State University sophomore majoring in broadcast communications, she took a part-time job as a peer counselor in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) to help pay her tuition. It was her first taste of helping students achieve their goals, and it would define her career and remain her passion for the next four decades when she would achieve her own goal and become Merritt College’s president.


The presidency of a major Bay Area community college was a far cry from her childhood dream of being a dancer. Nor was it anywhere close to her undergraduate ambition of becoming a TV news reporter, an aspiration that stemmed from the public-speaking skills that had earned her multiple trophies on the debate team at Lowell High School in San Francisco.


But unlike many of the students who Dr. Burns had helped inspire along the way, she was blessed to have parents who not only supported her educational dreams but insisted on them. “There was no option for me as far as that was concerned —I was going to college,” she says. “My mother believed in me and taught me I could be anything I wanted and to never let anyone tell me otherwise. And my father supported my mother in providing us with values and a good foundation for a productive life.”


Those were lessons that she would take to heart and then pass on as a mentor to hundreds of students throughout her career. At California State University, Long Beach, she did field work for her master’s degree in the then-internationally renowned Learning Assistance Center. She completed her doctoral dissertation by designing a Learning Assistance Center model for the California Community Colleges, where Dr. Burns decided that education, and not dancing or TV news, would become her career. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in the School of Management & Administration and a Doctorate in Institutional Management, both from Pepperdine University.


Throughout her career, Dr. Burns has been responsible for all the major components that drive student success—from college access, student retention and support services, to transfer and graduation. Along the way, her reputation grew as she offered her expertise to a variety of colleges throughout California, including CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU Long Beach State, Hartnell, Skyline, and Foothill, where she served as dean of its 4,500-student Middlefield Campus.


During the last 10 years when she served as Vice President of Student Affairs at San Jose City College, Dr. Burns started envisioning herself as a college president and began applying for positions throughout the Bay Area. “I felt like after all my education and years of experience, I had the qualifications to lead a college,” she says. “But after several times of being a finalist and not getting the job, I got discouraged and began thinking instead of retiring.”


It was just around that time that PCCD Chancellor Jowel Laguerre invited her to serve as interim president at Merritt, and, less than a year later, to become permanent president. She promptly put aside her retirement forms.


“Merritt College had been my first choice, so I was thrilled,” she says. “I love Oakland, and I wanted to be at a place where I could really make a difference and help students be successful, working hand-in-hand with all Merritt’s valuable faculty, staff, and administrators who are working toward the same outcome.”


Dr. Burns knew her dream had come true when she presided over her first Commencement ceremony and was able to say, “With the powers vested in me…” as hundreds of cheering students achieved their own dreams.


“I really want to give a human feel to the presidency so students will know that I am one of them, and they are welcome to come in and talk to me,” she says. “I want to be an example of perseverance. I came from Bayview-Hunter’s Point, I was a first generation college student, I’m a single mother, and it took me a long time to reach my goal. I want to let them know they can do it, too. Perseverance pays off!”

                                                                                                                                                         —Susan May

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Lesson Plan From New Bug-Collecting Biology Professor: Discover Nature in Oakland!

10 October 2017

How many of us get to turn our childhood sense of wonder into a career? Dr. Brad Balukjian, new Merritt biology professor, was fortunate enough to do just that. With a love of nature from an early age, he grew up experiencing and studying the environment—and even had an insect named after him (see photo)! Today he is excited to be sharing his experience and knowledge with students this semester in his new class, “Biology of the Living World.”

“I was lucky to grow up in rural Rhode Island on a lake with blue herons, bullfrogs, largemouth bass, and a wide variety of insects,” he says. “Many of our students have not had the same opportunities to connect with nature even though it is all around us in urban Oakland.”

While outside, the students are told to make basic observations and keep track of their discoveries in their field journals. “I want to get them to start thinking scientifically as they identify the plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that are among the 9 million species that are our roommates on Earth,” he says. “What are the characteristics of a certain tree? Is it native to California? Why are there thorns on the branches?”


That is now changing for Brad’s students who regularly get to leave the classroom with their instructor to wander into nearby Leona Canyon and regional parks throughout the area to get up close and personal with the nature they may have been missing.


“My students love going outside,” says Brad. “I teach them early on about a whole field of research called ecotherapy that shows how just being outside makes you healthier by reducing levels of stress hormone and blood pressure.”


Brad’s love of nature began around age 8 when he would ask local fishermen to drop him off on one of the state’s many islands to explore. His interest grew through high school and onto Duke University, where he designed his own major, Island Biogeography. Then, at UC Berkeley, his doctoral thesis in entomology took him to Tahiti where he discovered 20 species of “true” bugs on the small island of Moorea and documented how the species formed. As part of the project, he also taught biodiversity to local 5th graders who also helped him collect the insects.


While the research he conducted furthered his knowledge and earned him a Ph.D., it was the teaching experience that Brad fell in love with. He went on to teach Intro to Biology for three years at Laney College before heading to Merritt where he now has the opportunity to teach his specialty. In the future, he hopes to teach more natural history classes.


“I get a lot of emotional fulfillment from teaching that research doesn’t provide,” says Brad. “It’s gratifying to see students’ brains opening up and to be able to help them along the path. By exposing students to nature and to environmental issues, they can understand that our lives are dependent on the natural world. The only way to protect the environment is to first learn to love it.”


And it is teaching at a community college where Brad believes he can get this message across and have the most impact. “The beauty of being at a community college like Merritt is to be able to focus on teaching and mentoring and helping students tap into their own potential. I’m excited to be here.”


—Susan May


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Students Have Unforgettable Experience at Black Caucus

10 October 2017

For Di’Shea Richardson, attending the 47th Annual Congressional Black Caucus was an experience she’ll never forget. An ASMC senator and PTK member, Di’Shea was one of six Merritt students (13 total Peralta students) invited to attend the four-day September event in Washington, D.C. along with 8,000 other guests. The trip was led by Trustee Linda Handy who supports PCCD students’ attendance every year.


The CBC’s conference addresses policies and issues that impact African Americans and the global community by developing leaders to educate the public.


During the conference, Peralta’s delegation had the opportunity to participate in many activities, reports Dr. Herbert Kitchen, Director of Student Activities and Campus Life, who served as chaperone. Among the activities, they met with Peralta’s lobbyist, toured the year-old Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, visited Congresswoman Barbara Lee in her office, toured the U.S. Capitol, and met congressmen, senators, educators, community leaders, and other visiting students.


For Di’Shea, it was the history she learned that made the biggest impact. “After taking a trip to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, I feel more empowered and willing to make a difference not only for myself, but for my people,” she says. “It was a great honor to attend the Congressional Black Caucus and to meet such intelligent and strong people who are making a difference every day for the black community and other minority communities.”

Pictured: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker with Gerardo Jeronimo, Iris Martin, and Melanie Diaz (BCC); a quick selfie of Di’Shea Richardson, Montel Floyd, and Ya’Mese Johnson; and Di’Shea with MLK, Jr statue. (Also attending the CBC was Briana Williams)



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First Non-Credit Program Sets ESL Students on Career Pathway

10 October 2017

Over the years teaching Child Development courses at the Fruitvale campus, Jennifer Briffa met a population of students eager to learn the communication skills to help them find employment. In working with other faculty and staff to promote the best use of the site, they realized the need for non-credit ESL classes that could be grouped with other classes to learn career skills.


“Many of the students are fearful of moving forward to take even pre-requisite classes at Merritt because they don’t have the confidence that they can succeed in regular college classes, and the cost is too high to take a chance,” says Jennifer. “So we needed to find a program that would allow them to transition to Merritt while learning language and career skills at the same time.”


After two years of research, planning, and approvals, Merritt’s first non-credit pilot program was launched at the Fruitvale site this semester with a healthy enrollment of 40 students. The Child Development/ESL Program offers two 8-week evening sessions of


Introduction to Infant/Toddler Development as well as English for Infant/Toddler Development. By completing both sessions, students receive a State-approved Certificate of Completion. And, best of all, the classes are free.


“This was the perfect solution to preparing students for a career by learning Child Development skills and taking ESL classes geared toward their profession,” says Jennifer, who created the program with Laney ESL instructor Beth Maher, who teaches the ESL portion of the class, and Lisa Cook, previously an ESL instructor at BCC, now its Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “But the program could be geared toward any career. Students feel more confident in this setting where there is less risk because there are no grades, just an assessment of their strengths.”


The program is designed to allow in-home babysitters, nannies, childcare workers, teacher’s aides, or any profession taking care of children to receive a certificate that will make them more marketable in the field and can lead to furthering their education to earn a license and/or a certificate or degree in Child Development.


“It’s been very powerful and fulfilling for all of us,” says Jennifer, who also serves as the program’s coordinator. “We are excited to see the students engaged, enthusiastic, and determined. And we look forward to seeing many of them on campus as future Merritt students.”


This is the first in a series of non-credit classes that is currently being coordinated at Merritt College by Maria Spencer, Interim Dean of Educational Success, in such areas as Allied Health, Business, Communication, Disability Services, and Landscape Horticulture. For more information, contact Maria at or Jennifer Briffa at


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Chancellor’s Forum Opens Doors to Discussion About District and College Issues

9 October 2017

Chancellor Jowel Laguerre’s visit to campus on October 2 for his annual Fall Forum allowed faculty and staff the opportunity to discuss District and college issues in an open, informal setting. Bringing along newest Trustee Karen Weinstein with him to be aware of what’s on the minds of Merritt, the Chancellor opened the floor to those with ideas for how to make Merritt and the entire District a better place.


The discussion started off with a topic that seemed to be on everyone’s minds: The Oakland A’s possible relocation to District property. The Chancellor assured the audience of faculty and staff that no decision woud be made without college and community input. Other topics included elevator maintenance issues, getting invoices paid promptly, possibility of a shuttle from Fruitvale BART, evacuation training, infrastrucutre, facilities (with an introduction of new Director of Facilities Enrique Villasana), enrollment management, a future bond measure, and more.


Thanks to Chancellor Laguerre for allowing Merritt’s voices to be heard.

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Panel Discussion to Pay Tribute to the Black Panther Party on 51st Anniversary

6 October 2017

A panel discussion on “How Can the Legacy of the Black Panther Party Move Us Forward Today?” will be held on Friday, October 13, from 7-10 p.m. in the Huey P. Newton & Bobby Seale Student Lounge (R-110) as part of the celebration of the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, sponsored by Stellium and Hip-Hip TV. The opening reception will feature Dr. Dennis Kimbro, best-selling author of five books and a meet-and-greet with the eight panel members which includes two Merritt faculty members, Jason Seals, Chair of Ethnic Studies; and Charity Clay, Sociology Professor.  

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Administration of Justice “Moves with the Mayor”

6 October 2017

Margaret Dixon and some of her students pose with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf this morning during the “Move with the Mayor Challenge.” This nationwide World Heart Day-inspired campaign asks citizens to take steps to improve their health by walking and being physical.

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