Jesse Cheng
As the next student regent, Jesse Cheng will represent his UC peers. Daniel A. Anderson / UCI

Whatever he’s done during his UC Irvine career — and he’s done a lot — Jesse Cheng has always tried to make his mother proud. “She sacrificed so much to get me here,” he explains. So when he recently called her to say he’d been chosen as student regent for the University of California, his biggest extracurricular achievement yet, Cheng was a little disappointed by her reaction.

“OK,” she said, her tone mild. “That’s fine.”

“That’s fine“? It wasn’t exactly the response he’d expected. But a short while later, his mom called back. She’d searched the Internet for “student regent” and discovered he would represent the student body from all 10 UC campuses on the university’s governing board.

“This is huge!” she exclaimed. “Congratulations!”

That was more like it.

Cheng is the second UCI student to hold the position; former UCI Alumni Association president Jenny Doh was student regent in 1990-91. A third-year Asian American studies major with an education minor, Cheng will serve as a nonvoting regent designate until his one-year term officially begins July 1, 2010.

He’ll attend meetings of the regents and their committees and cast votes on behalf of all UC students, weighing in on such key issues as fees and budget cuts.

“The UC system will go through a lot of difficult times in the next few years, and it will set the model for public higher education over the next few decades,” Cheng says. “I want to give students a voice and share their unique perspective with the regents.”

No one expects him to sit quietly at the table. Throughout the rigorous selection process, Cheng impressed student interviewers and regents alike as being articulate, savvy and committed to the UC.

“It became a joke,” he says. “During the interviews, they would usually nod their heads and go, ‘Yup, he’s a politician.'”

In fact, Cheng hopes to be a politician someday, and he has learned a lot about community involvement and campaigning at UCI. He gained leadership experience as co-chair of the Asian Pacific Student Association, chair of the Student Fee Advisory Committee, executive vice president of the Associated Students of UCI and administrative intern for the Cross-Cultural Center. In addition, he led a campaign last fall to get out the Asian American vote on campus.

“Jesse is an outstanding student and representative of UCI to the regents,” says Manuel Gómez, vice chancellor of student affairs. “He’s knowledgeable, engaged, articulate and cognizant of issues important to all students. This is a proud day for UCI and an impressive and deserved achievement for Jesse.”

Now Cheng plans to use his skills to let students — especially those at UCI — know what’s going on at the regental level.

“I love campus life,” he says. “I’ll be out on Ring Mall informing students, answering questions, handing out fliers. I’ll be a student regent who works the tables.”

He also has a message for the community: Don’t disinvest in UC. It’s crucial to support the system in hard times, he says, so people can compete in the global marketplace and get jobs.

“This is when you can’t give up,” Cheng says. “We have to remind the public and the students who will later come here that UC should still be the dream for higher education.”

Originally published in Zotzine Vol. 1, Iss. 8