Before he came to UC Irvine, fitting in was a challenge for Oracio Sanchez ’09. He was raised by his great-aunt in a rural Mexican village while his parents worked in the nearby city of Mexicali. He rejoined them after they moved to Riverside, but by then he was 10 and felt like a stranger in his own family.
“Not understanding English, not having friends, and living in a house with people I didn’t know was difficult,” Sanchez recalls.
He coped by focusing on his schoolwork. In time, Sanchez went from being an outsider to one of UCI’s most active and engaged students, one who connected traditionally disparate individuals and university groups through his leadership in student government, team sports, ethnic student organizations, Greek life and the gay community.
Because of this campus involvement, Sanchez received the 2009 Living Our Values Student Award. Given annually by Chancellor Michael Drake, the awards honor staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.
“Oracio Sanchez could have been the loneliest person at UCI. Few students have had the same experience growing up,” wrote Kyle Wesley Holmes ’09 in his nomination letter. He and Sanchez were both executive officers of Associated Students of UCI.
“Instead,” Holmes continued, “he became one of the most successful students UCI has produced. He listened to what other students had to say on any given issue, and he could, in some way, relate to nearly every student on campus.”
While pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Spanish literature and global cultures, Sanchez became coxswain on the UCI rowing team. He served as ASUCI vice president and internal affairs chair of MEChA’s campus chapter to promote equal access to higher education for minorities.
Openly gay, Sanchez also helped the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center set up the Safe Zone program to create a more welcoming campus climate for LGBT students. “We developed a course to train other students to become more understanding of them,” he says.
“I came out my senior year in high school because I wanted to leave there knowing who my real friends were,” Sanchez says. “I told them, ‘I’m still the same person,’ and they were cool. When I came to UCI, the last thing I wanted was to be in the closet.”
Indeed, when Jeff Sheng, M.F.A. ’07 was seeking LGBT student-athletes from across the U.S. to photograph for his “Fearless” series, Sanchez posed in his crew uniform. He helped bring Sheng’s exhibit to the UCI Student Center in October 2008.
In addition, Sanchez worked up the nerve to join a fraternity.
“It took me four years to join Phi Gamma Delta. I wasn’t sure how the Greek community would react,” he says. “There’s a stereotype that fraternities are macho or homophobic, but here were the brothers, hanging out with me. For some, I was the first gay person they’d ever talked to. But they realized, ‘You’re just like everyone else.'”
Today, Sanchez is working full-time and planning to attend graduate school to study international relations or Spanish literature. His feeling of belonging at UCI is so strong that he still helps out at events sponsored by MEChA, the LGBT Resource Center or his fraternity.
“I’m there to support them because they became my friends,” Sanchez says. “That’s something UCI gave me.”