Martha Newkirk was a young working mother when she started classes at UC Irvine in 1969. She took challenging classes, interacted with talented professors, even participated in a few campus protests. And she found her niche.
“UC Irvine opened my eyes to the broader world,” says Newkirk, who completed her doctorate in social ecology at UCI in 1981. “There were so many opportunities and great professors like Arnie Binder, who founded the School of Social Ecology. He really took an interest in me and reinforced and encouraged what I was trying to do.”
Forty years later, her devotion to UCI remains undimmed. She and her husband, James Newkirk, provided the generous funding that allowed the campus to break ground Friday, Nov. 18, on the Newkirk Alumni Center. The 12,500-square-foot center with office and conference space will rise near the corner of Mesa Road and University Drive and by next fall will serve more than 140,000 former students. Newkirk hopes that it will be a beacon for alumni.
“I want to ignite alumni passion about reconnecting with the place they received their education, with the meaning their education has had for them, and to develop more of a voice for the campus in their communities,” she says. “And I want them to be more generous with their support.”
Newkirk quietly goes about practicing what she preaches. She served on the University of California Board of Regents as alumni regent from 1989 to 1991, focusing her attention on management of the Department of Energy labs at Livermore, Berkeley and Los Alamos, N.M. Jenny Doh ’91, who was student regent at the time, developed a fast friendship with Newkirk.
“When I entered into this new group of people who were interested in preserving the welfare of the University of California, I sort of felt like the fish out of water. I was just an undergraduate student in a room full of elected regents, faculty, chancellors and alumni,” Doh recalls. “I think what drew me to Martha was that she didn’t brush me off, and she had empathy for my situation, as did our chancellor, Jack Peltason. It gave me comfort knowing that I could sit next to Martha, and it was safe to ask her questions and share ideas with her.”
Newkirk is also a past president of the UCI Alumni Association and a trustee of the UCI Foundation, where she is on the executive committee, chairs the alumni & student relations committee, and is a member of the nomination & board development committee. She has received the UCI Alumni Association’s Lauds & Laurels award and the campus’s highest distinction, the UCI Medal.
The Newkirks have endowed two fellowships in social ecology, and their name is on the Newkirk Pavilion at Anteater Ballpark. “I like baseball; my husband loves it,” she says with a smile. “He attended college on a baseball scholarship.”
Perhaps most significantly, the couple established UCI’s Newkirk Center for Science & Society 10 years ago to improve scientific response to community needs.
“Our goal there is to connect the professors and their wonderful research with the outside world,” Newkirk says. “It’s a mechanism to introduce UCI to the community and to bring the more people onto the campus.”
The Newkirk Alumni Center is an extension of that effort.
“We think it will greatly energize our processes,” says Jorge Ancona, assistant vice chancellor of alumni relations. “It’s a highly visible location that will serve as a focal point, and it will just be easier for people to stop by.”
In her own soft-spoken manner, Newkirk calls for UCI alumni to be more vocal advocates of the campus, and she hopes the new center will facilitate that goal.
“About 40 percent of our alumni live in Orange County, and 70 percent live in Southern California,” she says. “When they network and socialize, I want them to say, ‘I went to UC Irvine.’”