HomeEducationCourt ruling expands Merced County scholarship opportunities through Virginia Smith Trust

Court ruling expands Merced County scholarship opportunities through Virginia Smith Trust

By Brianna Vaccari l Central Valley Journalism Collaborative l March 21, 2023

MERCED (CVJC) – 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,, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced, CA.

Journalism Collaborative Taps Michelle Morgante as Editor-in-Chief of a Newly Established News Organization

Morgante, a 30-year journalism veteran, brings community reporting to the Valley 

CVV News-June 21, 2022

The Central Valley Journalism Collaborative (CVJC) appointed Michelle Morgante, as Editor-in-Chief of its newsroom, tapping a news veteran to lead a newly formed journalism collaborative that seeks to activate a vibrant local free press. The goals of the Collaborative are to grow newsroom jobs, increase the diversity of the reporting workforce, engage the next generation of consumers, support local journalism ecosystem innovation, and expand philanthropic investment in the Valley.

Morgante, a native of the San Joaquin Valley town of Lindsay, brings 30 years of experience and the combined perspective of local, national, and international journalism to the newly formed nonprofit journalism organization.

“Michelle has deep journalistic knowledge and diverse news experience which, paired with her Central Valley roots, will help raise the profile and build the quality of our Collaborative,” said Priscilla Enriquez, founding CVJC board member and CEO of the James B. McClatchy Foundation. “CVJC is committed to its vision of fair, unbiased local and regional reporting. It is imperative that we fill the gap left by the loss of independent, fact-based news and the proliferation of news deserts in our communities”.

Launched by the James B. McClatchy Foundation, the nonprofit Central Valley Journalism Collaborative project aims to counter the loss of local journalists amid the collapse of the traditional media industry. Led by Morgante as Editor-in-Chief, the Merced-based CVJC will invest in new reporters who will work with existing newsrooms to dive into important Valley issues.

“I am a product of the San Joaquin Valley. This place matters to me,” said Michelle Morgante, Editor-in-Chief of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative. “I want to use the experience I’ve gained to ensure that the Valley thrives. It’s my hope that, through collaborative journalism, we can rebuild that framework in a new way: one that pairs the long-established practices of community reporting with the emerging systems for collaboration, shared distribution, and mutual sustainability.” 

After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science/international relations from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Morgante launched a journalism career that has taken her across the United States and Latin America. During more than 20 years with The Associated Press, she reported from Detroit, Denver, Portland, Ore., and San Diego; became an editor on the International Desk in New York and the Latin America Desk in Mexico City; and was deputy bureau chief for Florida and then bureau chief for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

In 2015, Morgante returned home to the San Joaquin Valley to become Managing Editor of the Merced Sun-Star, a McClatchy daily newspaper, winning the top General Excellence prize from the California News Publishers Association during her tenure. She later served as Deputy Managing Editor for National Public Radio and worked on the University of California, Merced public relations team. Before joining CVJC, Morgante was the member network director for the Institute for Nonprofit News.

With the awareness that community connection is powerful, Morgante hopes that the collaborative will provide opportunities to build local and hyperlocal spotlights and highlight the people, events, and topics that matter to our communities.

“The richness of the Valley is best reflected in the voices of the people who live and work there. And it is best captured by reporters who live there. With an editor-in-chief based in Merced, Michelle brings the cachet and experience we need to fulfill our mission,” said Susan McClatchy, founding CVJC board member.

Central Valley Voice
Central Valley Voice
Felicia Roberts took an idea gathered a few people to reached into a minority community to highlight the positive, using a minority newspaper the Central Valley Voice. Roberts was joined by her sisters Carolyn Williams, Alleashia Thomas, niece Hermonie Lynn Williams, nephew Ron Williams, cousin Jerald Lester, Jay Slaffey, Greg Savage, Tim Daniels and the late J Denise Fontaine. Each individual played an important role in the birth of the newspapers. Since, then many have stood strong behind the success of the newspapers and its goal to fill a void in the Central Valley community The Central Valley Voice published their 1st issue in November 1991. Its purposed was to highlight the achievements of minorities in the Central Valley. The Voice focuses on the accomplishments of African Americans and Hispanics giving young people role models while diminishing the stereotypical pictures of gangs, crime and violence that permeate the minority communities. Since 1991, the Central Valley Voice has provided an important voice for the minority community throughout the Madera, Merced. Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

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