By: Maggie Downs

Nestled in the heart of the Coachella Valley is Palm Desert, widely known for its world-class golfing, top-notch resorts, and luxury shopping. But there’s so much more to discover, learn, and explore.

This, after all, is also the home of UCR Palm Desert Center, a dynamic center for research and education that serves as a visible symbol of the ongoing commitment UCR has made to the Coachella Valley.

Since its founding in 2005, UCR Palm Desert has served as a base for UCR research programs as well as a venue for enriching community programs and continuing education courses. It’s also the hub for the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.

Basically, this is where stories get an opportunity to unfold.

Where Writers Become Masters

For example, Jalysa Conway, a U.S. Air Force veteran, came to UCR Palm Desert to study screenwriting in the MFA program. After graduation, she went on to become a staff writer on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lone Star.” Now Amazon Studios is developing her coming-of-age drama, set in a university ROTC program, with Spike Lee attached to direct and executive produce.

The self-supporting MFA program, (which means it takes no taxpayer money), is an innovative hybrid of online and in-person education, the only one of its kind in the UC system. It’s divided into seven quarters of online study and five 10-day in-person residencies over a two-year period, which allows students to obtain a Master’s degree without disrupting their daily lives.

That’s ideal for the students who come to Palm Desert from all over the world, as well as those who live right here in the Inland Empire — like Andrew Navarro of Menifee, a writer who explores themes of identity and the Chicano experience through his poetry. Andrew wanted to pursue a graduate degree and invest in himself, but he’s also a busy middle school teacher with a wife and two young children.

“I work. I have a family and responsibilities,” he said. “So I had to find a program that could give me space for my life while also helping me become the best possible writer.”

Las Vegas resident Sandy Smith is an alumna of the program with a focus on fiction After a diverse career with a long list of publishing accomplishments, Sandy hit the top of her pay scale as a freelance editor and began searching for an MFA program that would help expand her career options.

“Becoming a working professional was the focus at UCR Palm Desert. It wasn’t some ivory tower of literature,” Sandy said. “Here was a graduate school program that said not only can you make great art, you can make a living while doing it.”

Notable alumni include Congressman Mark Takano (CA-39); Natashia Deón, author of “The Perishing” and “Grace,” a New York Times best book of the year and NAACP Image Award nominee; and Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Guy Nicolucci.

Students specialize in a main genre of emphasis, like fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, or poetry, but take cross-genre classes in other disciplines as well.

“Our goal is simple: We’re all about helping people write what they want to write, what they need to write, and the new voices people need to hear,” said program director Tod Goldberg, himself a New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books.

Where Research Makes an Impact

UCR Palm Desert Center for Conservation Biology At the UCR Palm Desert Center, you’ll also find the Center for Conservation Biology, where research is focused on managing a suitable environment for the desert’s natural biodiversity. Projects have included the impacts and control of exotic weeds in native habitats; evaluating local environmental health; and determining sufficient habitat area and patch configuration to sustain populations of sand dune species. The scientists at the center collaborate with other conservation biologists working in arid spaces and have developed programs to engage community scientists in environmental research.

Two certification programs, Climate Stewards and California Naturalists, are offered at the center through UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. Both are led by Dr. Cameron Barrows, a conservation ecologist, giving students an introduction to California desert ecology with a focus on stewardship and community science. These programs take the lectures out of the classroom and into the sand, with excursions for field instruction throughout the region.

Nearby, just five miles south of Palm Desert, there’s more scientific discovery taking place. The Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center has been a field station of UCR since 1958 and is one of the largest reserves among the National Reserve System.

As the only protected site in the Colorado Desert dedicated to research and training, there is no public access or recreational use of Deep Canyon. This means scientists can undertake long-term projects knowing their sites will not be disturbed by conflicting uses.

“The chance to live among some of the animals I’ve been studying is awfully exciting. I can be right there watching these animals do their thing,” said Christopher Tracy, director of the center.

Where the Community Gathers

For the community, UCR Palm Desert Center provides an open and welcoming place. The center expands access to quality educational opportunities by offering free programming, like film screenings, art exhibitions, fascinating lectures, daylong festivals, and intimate discussions with creatives and thought leaders. Most of these programs showcase UCR researchers and academics.

“What makes our center so special is that we encourage everyone to think bigger, act bolder, and learn more,” said director Tamara Hedges. “By empowering each other in these learning experiences, we are leading change. And we’re having a lot of fun while doing it.”

Lifelong learners also have a home in UCR Osher, which promotes quality of life through learning for people aged 50 and older. Classes are offered on a wide variety of subjects that reflect the varied interests of Osher members — everything from history to astronomy, opera to the Beatles. These take place in person in Palm Desert and Riverside, as well as on Zoom for those who prefer the comfort of home.

“Our goal is for members to learn for the joy of it, with no homework, tests, or grades, and you’ll likely make new friends,” said Johnna Norris, program director. “There is truly something for everyone at UCR Osher.”