Cunningham legacy at Merced College continues to grow
By Luciana Chavez
Blue Devil’s Advocate
When Merced College turns to the horizon to ponder its future or looks back to reflect upon its history, the Cunningham family is usually there, looking in the same direction.
The family’s relationship with Merced College predates the college’s opening and continues today, as the Cunningham legacy moves into a fourth generation.
Ryan Wang is the newest member of the Cunningham clan to join the college. Wang, who will graduate with his A.A. in Political Science on May 26 and is currently serving as the student trustee on the college’s Board of Trustees, is the son of Merced College Vice President Jill Cunningham, grandson of former trustee and longtime supporter Jim Cunningham, and great-grandson of founding trustee Byron Cunningham.
“Merced College is like a family in many ways, and we see family ties all across our district and throughout our community,” President Chris Vitelli said. “There may be no other family who has had as deep and broad an impact on Merced College as the Cunninghams. They are inextricably interwoven into our past, present, and future as a district, and we are eternally grateful for their many and varied contributions throughout Merced College’s history.”
Merced College receives support from alumni, dedicated service from employees, major donations from locals like the Lakireddy and Kahlon families, and benefits from sponsorships and partnerships with the agriculture industry and regional stakeholders like Gallo Farms and Mercy Medical Center Merced.
The Cunninghams sit in a different category — or maybe all of the categories.
Their relationship with the college began when Byron Cunningham, a local rancher who also owned movie theaters in Los Angeles, joined other leaders in the early 1960s to bring a community college to Merced County.
Byron had moved permanently to the family ranch outside of Planada in the mid-1940s and was a board member at nearby Le Grand High School when the idea started gaining traction. Voters approved the new college in 1961, and Byron became a founding member of the Merced College Board of Trustees.
“He wanted to see a community college here because they provide a multifaceted experience,” his son Jim said.
Byron passed away in 1981 at age 80. He never got to see his grandchildren choose the college he had helped found, but Jim Cunningham was already advancing his father’s mission.
Jim Cunningham spent four decades serving on the Merced County Board of Education, the Planada Elementary School District Board, the Le Grand Union High School Board, and the Merced College Board of Trustees.
Jim and his wife Carlene have worked hard to spread good throughout Merced County these past 60 years. With little fanfare, they’ve given major gifts to UC Merced, the Merced Theatre, Mercy Medical Center Merced, and Friends of the Fair, among other organizations.
To the college, they’ve provided financial support for the amphitheater, the entrance plaza, the Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex, and other campus initiatives.
Jim, 83, a Fresno State alumnus, has even taken classes at Merced College as an adult. He remains on the college’s Ag Advisory Committee.
“My father would be thrilled to see the college’s success,” he said. “Every educational outlet has ups and downs. Leadership changes over the years, but I think President Vitelli is doing an excellent job. … As you know, you need good leadership, good management, good instructors, and good custodial staff to be successful. We have that here.”
Jim and Carlene’s children, Mike, Kelly and Jill, all chose to get an education at Merced College after graduating from Le Grand High. All three then left Merced County.
“When I left, I thought, ‘I’m never going back,’” Jill Cunningham said. “I couldn’t wait to get out.”
Jill eventually landed in Washington, D.C., as a political consultant, settling into a professional life filled with travel.
She married and was living in Berkeley with husband Alan Wang, raising sons Jameson and Ryan and daughter Carly, when she was asked to speak at Merced College in 2016.
Her parents were receiving the President’s Medallion, an annual award given to the college’s greatest supporters. The event reminded Jill of how much Merced College meant to her family, and to her. She didn’t know how to process that emotion.
Not long after, Jill heard there was an open position to lead the college’s Office of External Relations and the Merced College Foundation. Eventually she heeded the inner voice telling her to come home.
“As soon as I started interviewing, I knew this was the place I wanted to be and that I would make it work,” Jill said. “It helps, too, having a family legacy here covering so many years. I am so proud to represent and advocate for this community and be a cheerleader for the college. I go to work each day feeling proud.”
That Jill’s son Ryan Wang also gravitated to Merced College, in his own time and way, surprised nearly everyone in the family—even Ryan himself.
“I only fell in love with Merced College after I got here,” he said. “I wasn’t that jazzed about school before, but when I got here, I was inspired by my professors and the people working here.”
Ryan, who grew up in Berkeley, was a high school junior when the pandemic hit. Then his family moved to Turlock. After graduating from Turlock High, Ryan had no firm plans for college. Now, he’s determined to attend the best university that accepts him. He’s already received acceptance letters from several UC campuses, including UC Berkeley and UCLA, and is waiting to hear from others.
“I came to Merced College, reinvented myself a bit, and put myself in a good position to transfer,” he said.
“The most important thing I’ve gotten out of Merced College is finding mentors here. President Chris Vitelli has been so nice helping me with the college admissions process, answering my questions and acclimating me as a student trustee. Professor Richard Randall and Professor Max Hallman mentored me in finding passion as a student, as did Professor Dean Caivano. They’re all great people.”
To be a Cunningham means to support Merced College and to serve others.
“You like the area, you know the people, you see the need,” Jim Cunningham said. “A friend once said to me, ‘If you’re not giving, you’re not living.’ … Not everyone can afford to give money, but everyone can give time and talent. It’s important. Hopefully I’ll never quit doing that for Merced College as long as I live.”
Jill Cunningham appreciates this thread in her family tapestry.
“Everywhere Ryan goes now, he advocates for this incredible system,” she said. “The pride and commitment to higher education my grandfather had is still there in our family.”
Ryan was sitting in his mother’s office not long ago, looking at a photo of Byron at the groundbreaking of Merced College, and recalled a similar event for the new Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex in 2021.
“What began with my great-grandfather continues today,” he said. “It means a lot to us. … I want my kids to come here and want to give back to the college in the future. I appreciate that I can continue our legacy here.”