It’s a classic love story: Boy meets girl. Girl and boy become friends — then more than friends. They marry, have two children, work side by side. Thirty-three years later, they’re still happily married — and going out on Friday night dates.
The “boy” and “girl” are Aldrich “Pat” Patterson ’76 and Marcella “Chela” Patterson ’77. And their story started at UC Irvine.
Both were first-generation, low-income college students. Through the campus’s network of assistance and resources like the Educational Opportunity Program, both thrived and found their callings — Pat as a psychology major and Chela in sociology. Both eventually earned doctorates — Pat from the University of Maryland, Chela from the University of Southern California. And both chose professions in educational service.
Pat jokes that he came to UCI because “they let me in,” but what happened to the inner-city African American teen was no laughing matter. “I wouldn’t be the same without UCI,” he reflects. “The campus allowed me to grow and develop. I was lucky enough to have a lot of really great mentors at UCI. They went out of their way for me; they made me believe in myself.”
For the last 28 years, Pat has been instilling that kind of belief in others as a psychologist at California State University, Chico’s Counseling & Wellness Center.
Both he and Chela can rattle off a list of people who influenced them at UCI — from John Clayton, director of the campus’s Educational Opportunity Program; to Mesa Court director Jim Craig, who later became assistant vice chancellor for housing; to “father of black psychology” Joseph White, the first licensed African American psychologist in California.
“In Dr. White, I saw myself,” says Pat. “It wasn’t necessarily what he said. It was the way he exemplified a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, a black male. He set out a road map for me and others to follow. It could have been a lot different.
“Now I have become what others did for me. UCI laid the foundation. And I got a wife out of the deal!”
Having grown up in a “traditional Mexican family” in Oxnard, Chela worked in the fields as a child, as did her parents. “College was a whole new world of wonder,” she says. “EOP and the Summer Bridge program were critical for me. We had a community.
“Lorenza Schmidt, who worked for housing and EOP, was the first college-educated Latina I ever met. I walked into her office and said, ‘I want to do what you do.’ Education opened up my life. I had a really good experience at UCI. It set the course for the rest — the best — of my life and taught me not to settle.”
That lesson, among others, was passed on to Pat and Chela’s daughter, Alisa Patterson ’06. When it was time for her to select a college, neither parent pressured her to attend their alma mater. “We wanted our children to have their own experiences,” Chela says. In fact, their son, Alex, graduated from UCLA in December.
But they were thrilled when Alisa eventually chose UCI “despite them.” Visiting the university crystallized her decision. “I liked the feel of the campus,” she says. “Aldrich Park in the center, Ring Mall — it all felt like home.”
She followed in her parents’ footsteps, living in Mesa Court, where Pat and Chela had met and later served as resident advisers. “I loved UCI,” Alisa says. “I loved living in Sierra Hall. To be where my dad lived 30 years earlier was amazing. And UCI opened my eyes up to so many different things.”
Coming from a multicultural family, she was drawn to international studies and minored in Spanish. Alisa earned a master’s in higher and postsecondary education at Teachers College, Columbia University and is now a resident director at Jamestown Community College, in New York. Chela likes to joke that she joined “the family business.”
It seemed a natural choice. Alisa grew up on college campuses and was surrounded by college-age role models. She also had role models at home. “I saw how my parents were engaged with the students as mentors,” she says. “They’ve even been called ‘surrogate parents.’ I liked that a lot.”
In her role as director of California State University, Chico’s Educational Opportunity Program and Student Learning Center, Chela ensures that others’ children are taken care of.
“I work with first-generation college students, the most vulnerable student population,” she says. “It’s a matter of survival for these kids now. We’re the encourager and empowerer. We help them tap into their potential. It’s very rewarding.”
The family’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. “The Pattersons represent a level of intellectual talent characteristic of UCI students,” says Thomas Parham, interim vice chancellor for student affairs. “They translate a UCI education into principles and practices that help transform the lives of other people through giving, teaching and mentoring.”
On a personal note, he adds, “I love Pat and Chela. We’ve been colleagues since high school. Alisa is my godchild.”
The Pattersons’ decision to pursue careers in service to students completes the circle. Now they each give back to the community by assisting and inspiring future generations. Their love extends beyond their immediate family and embraces the larger human one.
It’s a true love story.