When former President Bill Clinton appeared at UC Irvine last October to rally Democrats before the election, he got some savvy political advice from undergraduate Jose Quintana. President of the College Democrats at UCI, he briefed Clinton on how to execute a proper Anteater salute.

“We were backstage at the Bren Events Center, and I showed him how to do the ‘Zot!,’” Quintana says. “He hadn’t heard of it, but I said, ‘If you do this, the students will go crazy.’”

Clinton took the stage and gave the hand sign to a crowd of about 5,000. “He said, ‘How am I doing?’ People erupted,” Quintana recalls.

That memorable encounter with Clinton wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t made a commitment to get the most out of his UC Irvine experience. The first in his family to attend a university, Quintana is working on bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology and has become active on the party circuit – the Democratic Party, that is.

“One of my mentors,” he says, “[associate professor of political science] Caesar Sereseres, asked me, ‘What are you doing to get your money’s worth at UCI? What sets you apart? How do you spend your time outside the classroom? Are you making meaningful relationships? Are you leaving your mark here?’”

Quintana found the answers to those questions when he joined the College Democrats. “I’ve always been interested in politics. At UCI, I wanted to put that into action,” he says.

The group, which has about 25 active members, participates in politics at all levels, informing the campus about issues that affect UC Irvine and the community and supporting Democratic candidates. (Its counterpart is the College Republicans at UCI.)

As president, Quintana spends a lot of his extracurricular time setting the club’s agenda, fundraising, recruiting members and encouraging students to vote. He’s also sold more than his share of bobas on Ring Mall and distributed countless fliers.

“I’m trying to get more students at UCI involved,” he says. “Students here are really into their studies. They’re focused on getting good grades and graduating quickly. It’s part of the reason our group isn’t as big as it could be.”

Quintana has also established meaningful relationships, as Sereseres encouraged him to do, by networking with Democrats in the community. A few days before Clinton’s appearance, he got a call from the California Democratic Party asking if his club wanted to co-host the event. (UC Irvine was not a sponsor; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee funded the rally.)

“I told them, ‘Of course.’ After that, everything moved really quickly,” Quintana recalls. He was invited to kick off the event with a five-minute speech. That’s when he got a valuable lesson in politics, the kind you can’t get in a classroom.

“I wanted to talk about Proposition 30 because I knew a lot of students would be there, and if it hadn’t passed, we would have all faced a tuition hike,” Quintana says. “At first, [the organizers] didn’t want to allow it. It wasn’t part of the agenda, but at the last minute, they said, ‘Go ahead.’

“I learned that a lot of people have a say in how these things work, and they have competing points of view. You have to stand your ground and learn how not to get pushed around.”

In short, he heeded his mentor’s advice and set himself apart. Among those impressed by Quintana’s poise at the podium: Leslie Millerd Rogers, Student Affairs chief of staff.

“It’s our practice to reach out to student leaders if we know they’re facing challenging circumstances. When a UCI student organization hosts a former president of the United States with just a few days’ notice, it’s time to check in,” she says.

“From the minute I met Jose, I knew he was focused and could keep a cool head. He knew how to have fun while being respectful of the occasion, and he always looked to include not only members of the College Democrats but all students. He listens, absorbs, assesses and then makes his path. What a remarkable, calm student leader.”

Because of his leadership skills, he recently was named UC Irvine’s undergraduate representative on the UC Office of the President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. The council works with a UC Board of Regents committee to address challenges in enhancing and sustaining a tolerant, inclusive environment on the university’s 10 campuses.

Quintana, who transferred to UC Irvine from Orange Coast College in fall 2011, gained important leadership qualities by first participating in the School of Social Sciences’ Summer Academic Enrichment Program. He lived on campus for five weeks with other first-generation college students and took courses in research, statistics, writing, communication and other skills.

“I’m not shy about speaking in front of a crowd, but the critiques at SAEP really helped me,” Quintana says. “When I spoke at the rally, I felt like I was in charge. I didn’t blank out.”

His parents, who began working straight out of high school, have always stressed the importance of going to college. They immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico a couple months before Quintana was born. At first, they were so poor that they lived in a relative’s garage.

“My mom and dad both held two jobs for many years,” Quintana says. “Eventually, they became U.S. citizens and now work as letter carriers for the Postal Service.”

After graduating in 2014, he hopes to pursue a master’s degree in public policy or attend law school. And he hasn’t ruled out a career in politics.

“Even as a young kid, I was always watching the news, and politics is a big part of that,” Quintana says. “I want to influence politics in some way.”

Clinton would approve. He might even flash a “Zot!”