In 1969, the city of Irvine seemed worlds apart from the predominately Latino neighborhood in southeast Santa Ana where young Salvador (Sal) Sarmiento grew up along with his seven brothers and sister.
And when it came time to think about the path to a higher education, UCI hadn’t even entered his mind.
“I didn’t know it existed, to be honest,” Sarmiento, 50, reminisced while taking a break from his duties as judicial commissioner at the Juvenile/Family Law Branch of the Orange County Superior Court.
But Sarmiento’s point of reference soon changed, thanks to two UCI students visiting Saddleback High School in 1969 as part of an outreach program to recruit Orange County students to the young campus.
“They encouraged us to apply. They came into my chemistry class and gave us a catalogue and said, ‘try us out,”’ Sarmiento recalled. They met individually with students to answer questions about the campus, what it had to offer and the UCI experience.
That recruiting trip and the care the students took to tell young Sal and other Latino students about UCI is what inspired Sarmiento – during his collegiate years and even now as a parent, lawyer and community activist – to spread the word about the opportunities the campus offers young Orange County residents, no matter where they live.
Each summer, Sarmiento speaks with high school students attending academic enrichment programs at UCI, touting the university and the importance of a higher education. Twice a year, Sarmiento visits Valley High School in Santa Ana, taking fellow jurists to promote careers in the law and a UCI education. He also is active as a mentor.
Sarmiento earned his bachelor’s in history in 1973 and received his law degree from UCLA in 1976. Before his appointment as a judicial commissioner in 1997, he ran his own law office in Santa Ana. Before that, he was a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and a Deputy State Public Defender for the State of California in San Diego.
He is a recipient of the Lauds & Laurels Distinguished Alumni award, and now is an active member of the UCI Alumni Association’s Santa Ana chapter. The association, the California State Assembly and the Orange County Human Relations Commission have all honored him for his work defending the civil rights of community groups and individuals.
That visit by UCI recruiters to his high school not only impressed young Salvador, it set the stage for future members of the Sarmiento clan to attend the university. It also helped engage and nurture Sarmiento’s activism and love for higher education.
During his sophomore year Sarmiento participated in the Quarter Away program, going to UC Berkeley to study Mexican history, arts and culture. In his junior year, Sarmiento studied at theInstituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City as part of the Education Abroad program.
“After those two programs I came back empowered, self-assured and with the idea we need to do things to cause change,” Sarmiento said.
Inspired, Sarmiento and a handful of other Latino students started their own K-12 academic outreach program called La Escuelita, or Little School, and assisted in the formation of a ballet folklorico group. That summer tutorial program, at Monroe Elementary School in Santa Ana, was entirely student-run. Both programs continue in different versions today under the umbrella of the Center for Educational Partnerships, which has nearly 50 outreach programs for K-12 students and community colleges.
Sarmiento’s activism has reached his 19-year-old son, Salvador G., an undergraduate at UCI who currently co-chairs MEChA, a nationwide Chicano student-run organization. With the group Salvador G. actively helps reach out to Latino students in Santa Ana, encouraging them to realize that UCI is an achievable option for them.
“Our main goal is to get more minority students interested in a higher education, specifically at the UCs. We also want to help them while they are here, so they will stay and hopefully continue on to graduate school,” Salvador G. said. “The effort by the university is definitely there. But we want to do more.”
The younger Sarmiento’s decision to attend UCI was shaped by its proximity, academic excellence and the scholarships awarded to him.
While the elder Sarmiento didn’t “engrave UCI in our skulls,” it was something he talked about, raising awareness of the campus and the option to go there. A more vocal champion was Salvador G.’s mother, Socorro.
Sarmiento met his wife while he was attending school atInstituto Nacional. She was there working on her thesis to obtain her bachelor’s. She earned her doctorate in social sciences from UCI in 1999.
Presently, she is a lecturer in anthropology and Chicano/Latino studies in the School of Social Sciences and a popular fixture around campus organizing and participating in cultural events on campus and in Santa Ana.
The UCI legacy doesn’t end there, however.
Sarmiento’s brother, Robert, earned his Masters in Fine Arts from UCI; his sister, Cecilia, a bachelor’s in Spanish. Another sister, Irene, attended for three years before getting married and leaving school. Two nieces also attended UCI.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” Sarmiento said. “UCI has been a good school for us. And it started because caring students gave me a catalogue and let me know it was there.”