MERCED, Calif. — As he walks to class at the University of California, Merced, Freddie Virgen sees a sea of faces in various shades of brown. He is as likely to hear banda corridos blaring out of his classmates’ earphones as hip-hop. With affectionate embraces, he greets fellow members of Hermanos Unidos, a peer support group for Latinos that is one of the largest student organizations on campus.
“When I looked at other campuses, I would find myself feeling that I didn’t belong, like I’d stick out,” he said. “This was the only place where I saw so many students I could connect to, who would get where I was coming from. Even if it felt like academic shock, it wouldn’t feel like culture shock.”
In the decades since a ballot measure banned affirmative action in California’s public institutions, the University of California has faced persistent criticism that it is inadequately serving Latinos, the state’s largest ethnic group. The disparity between the state’s population and its university enrollment is most stark at the state’s flagship campuses: at University of California, Los Angeles, Latinos make up about 21 percent of all students; at Berkeley, they account for less than 13 percent.
But at Merced, the newest addition to the 10-campus University of California system, about 53 percent of the undergraduates are Latino, most closely mirroring the demographics of the nation’s most diverse state.
During student orientation each summer at Merced, parent workshops are offered in Spanish. Each year, there are large celebrations and altars for Día de los Muertos and performances from the campus ballet folkorico. Study session snack binges often include tostilocos, corn chips or Cheetos smothered in chamoy, a sticky salty-sweet sauce made popular in Mexico.
Merced, which opened its doors in 2005, is an outlier in other ways, too. The campus draws students from all over California, but almost none from other states or countries. Nearly three-quarters of students are the first in their families to attend college.
And whereas other campuses are situated near the state’s big urban centers, Merced sits at the northern end of California’s Central Valley, a vast agricultural region that has long been one of the poorest and overlooked parts of the state. In the early 2000s, state leaders focused on opening a campus there to serve a region that lagged far behind in educational attainment.
“More Latinos than ever are trying to go to college and they are largely not represented in the state’s elite public university system,” said Audrey Dow, the senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, which has pushed for more Latinos and students from California to be admitted. “Half of all school age children are Latino, so it’s the future we’re looking at. If we don’t improve these numbers quickly, a significant population will continue to be shut out.”
Now, more than any other campus, Merced is pivoting to serve a new generation of students. If California hopes to address the vast gap between rich and poor, students such as Mr. Virgen will need to earn college degrees. It is something of a paradox: the future of the state depends on whether the University of California can grow to be more like Merced, and the future of Merced depends on whether it can grow to be more like other campuses.
Surrounded by vast green fields on every side, with cows meandering near a small lake at the foot of Yosemite, the campus evokes a kind of isolation that is compounded by the long stretch of highway that needs to be traversed to find it. For students coming from cities like Los Angeles and Oakland, it can either feel like relief or a painful shock.
Mr. Virgen, a psychology major, often thinks the remoteness deepens the relationships among students.
“Here, you don’t feel like you’re in exile from your community, which could lead to all kinds of mental health issues,” said Mr. Virgen, who was born in Los Angeles after his parents emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico. But he does worry that entering graduate school or the professional world, where he may encounter far fewer Latinos, may be jarring. “That’s one of my fears. Latinos aren’t very well represented in the professional work force now compared to whites. So will I be in for a culture shock then?”
Latinos make up the majority of students at fewer than two dozen four-year public colleges nationally, including the University of Texas at El Paso and Florida International University in Miami. Merced was not specifically intended as a predominantly Latino school, but many students, professors and administrators see the campus demographics as a point of pride that drew them there.
Though he rarely spoke Spanish with his friends in Los Angeles, growing up in Koreatown and attending high school in Silver Lake, Jason De Leon, 20, finds himself using it far more often at Merced, where he is majoring in cognitive science. When he meets someone and picks up that they know the language, he will likely pepper his sentences with “pues” and “oye.” When he was setting up an event on campus and needed help, he shouted out to a group of friends the same way his grandmother used to call out to him: “Ven! Ayúdame!”
“It worked, it grabbed their attention,” said Mr. De Leon, whose parents immigrated from Guatemala in the 1990s. “That kind of stuff happens all the time. Some of it is being homesick, some of it is slang and some things just make much more sense in Spanish.”
Although Latinos are the dominant culture on campus, there have been signs of discomfort in recent years, as the national debate over immigration arrived on campus.
Earlier this year, the College Republicans set up a table on campus with signs that said “I love undocumented firearms” and “Ice Ice Baby,” referring to the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There was also a phone number posted for students to call federal immigration authorities.
The signs prompted weeks of protest by Latino students. Dorothy Leland, the chancellor, issued a statement in March saying that she was troubled that anyone would wish harm on undocumented students and “would deliberately introduce added stress and anxiety into their fellow students’ lives.”
The incident also prompted renewed calls for a student center on campus that would have dedicated spaces for Latino student groups.
In part, Latinos make up the majority of students at Merced because many have no other choice in the University of California system. The system promises to admit all students who graduate in the top 9 percent of their local high schools, but that is no guarantee that they will receive a spot at the most competitive schools, like U.C.L.A., Berkeley or San Diego. Often students who are rejected elsewhere are funneled to less sought-after campuses such as Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced, all of which have the highest percentages of Latino students.
The campus is also attracting students from the surrounding Central Valley, many of whom considered other University of California schools out of reach and applied specifically to Merced. The number of applicants from the Central Valley to the U.C. system have more than doubled since the Merced campus opened, many the first in their families to take that step.
As a child in Fresno, Tatiana Acosta did not know anyone who attended college, other than her teachers. Her mother has spent years working in a packing plant, filling small boxes with figs. Her grandfather, too, had held down mostly low-wage jobs in the agriculture industry after moving to the Central Valley from Nayarit, Mexico.
But in her sophomore year of high school, Ms. Acosta was recruited to an Upward Bound program, run by Merced to help high school students get into college. She spent several nights in the dorms at Merced that summer with other low-income students from Fresno, which is about an hour’s drive south.
“Before that, I was not doing anything good, I was not on the right path,” Ms. Acosta, 19, said one recent evening. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or even if I was going to finish high school. But I started connecting myself with people who wanted to see me succeed. It made me want something better for myself.”
Graduation rates for those enrolled at Merced lag behind other campuses. Administrators say they are trying all sorts of strategies for getting first-generation students not only to enroll, but to earn diplomas.
Ms. Acosta has struggled to juggle her family life back home with her new life on campus. Last fall, after her older sister was sentenced to several months in jail, her mother was often lonely and depressed, so Ms. Acosta felt obligated to visit. But Ms. Acosta struggled to stay on top of her school work, and ended up nearly failing a course in math and had to repeat a writing class. By the spring semester, Ms. Acosta, who is majoring in management and business economics, told her mother, who works in a fruit packing plant, that she could only visit once every two weeks for a night at a time.
“She didn’t want me to just leave her,” she said. “It was very hard to explain to my mom that this wasn’t about me not wanting to see her, but about doing what I came here to do.”