Victor Becerra
"I'm working to change the image of research universities from 'ivory towers' into accessible academies where the public sees institutional efforts to solve problems that affect their daily lives," says Victor Becerra, programs director at UCI's Community Outreach Partnership Center. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Victor Becerra grew up in a working-class, Mexican American
neighborhood of Santa Barbara. The street was his playground, the few
blocks around home his entire world.

“The park, the Boys &
Girls Club, the school, my grandmother’s house — all were within walking
distance. My mother could always find me at one of those places. I
think my neighborhood experiences drew me into urban planning,” says
Becerra, who earned a master’s in urban & regional planning at UCLA.
“I’ve always been civically engaged.”

As programs director at UC Irvine’s Community Outreach Partnership Center, he helps the university lend a hand to neighborhoods in need. Because of his commitment to building stronger communities and improving residents’ quality of life, Becerra has received the 2010 Living Our Values Award for staff members with more than five years of service.

The awards are given annually by Chancellor Michael Drake to staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.

“Through COPC, I’m working to change the image of research universities from ‘ivory towers’ into accessible academies where the public sees institutional efforts to solve problems that affect their daily lives,” Becerra says.

He joined the center in 2001, the year it was founded by former UCI professor Kristen Day in the Department of Planning, Policy & Design. Since then, he’s overseen COPC’s mission to share UCI’s primary resource — knowledge — with distressed communities in order to revitalize them.

Becerra has organized programs, lectures and conferences that allow students and faculty to offer expertise in housing, healthcare, public safety, traffic, education and other areas. He’s also associate director of UCI’s Center for Community Development Studies, which promotes equity and social justice for underserved populations.

In his Living Our Values Award nomination letter, David Feldman, professor and chair of planning, policy & design, explained why Becerra is successful at building bridges between campus and community: “More than anything, you’re drawn by the infectious enthusiasm of an individual who sees no boundaries between classroom study and research on the one hand and our responsibility to try to give back to the communities that nurture us and fill us with purpose on the other.”

Becerra coordinates COPC’s Community Scholars Program, which pairs graduate students with nonprofit agencies for the benefit of both. Students enhance their resumes with hands-on experience in urban planning, while their research and legwork serve the agencies.

“It’s important to cultivate and prepare young scholars who want to contribute to society,” Becerra says. “Citizenship is an important part of their education.”

This fall, COPC is sponsoring a Community Scholars course in which students collaborate with resident leaders in Central Santa Ana to develop a park at McFadden and Orange avenues that will feature an exercise/playground area and a community garden. Becerra arranged an introductory bus trip and walking tour of the site, allowing course participants, local representatives, pastors and others to share insights about improving the neighborhood.

“We’ll see something valuable come out of this,” he says. “For students, it’s about not just creating a park but learning to be actively engaged professionals.”

Past COPC projects include increasing pedestrian safety near a Westside Costa Mesa elementary school; supplying Anaheim-based Neighborhood Housing Services of Orange County with data that helped the agency establish a foreclosure counseling program; and sponsoring grant-writing classes so students could assist Orange County nonprofit organizations.

“Many lives at UCI and beyond are richer because of the work Victor does and the values he embraces and promotes,” says Valerie Jenness, social ecology dean. “He’s someone who takes research and teaching beyond the walls of academe and into diverse communities. They’re better off because he provides a bridge between town and gown.”