UCI News

Words from the wise

Undergraduate, graduate speakers at commencement are both first in their families to earn university degrees

June 9, 2014

UC Irvine students are preparing for a historic commencement ceremony Saturday, June 14, at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, where more than 8,000 graduates will flip their mortarboard tassels after a speech by President Barack Obama. Undergraduate, graduate and professional schools will all participate in the unified celebration. And 479 campus volunteers will be on hand to ensure that the 39,010 guests have a memorable time.

The ceremony is especially meaningful for Jacqueline Rodriguez, who will be the first person in her family to finish college. A member of UC Irvine’s SAGE Scholars program, Rodriguez was selected to be the undergraduate speaker at the event. The community college transfer student is graduating with degrees in sociology and Chicano/Latino studies and will enroll in a Ph.D. program in education this fall.

A Hacienda Heights native, Rodriguez says she is confident about speaking in front of the considerable audience. She has given public talks about her findings in UC Irvine’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and makes presentations to high school students as part of her work with the campus’s Early Academic Outreach Program.

“My speech will focus on the importance of investing in education,” Rodriguez says. “As a community college transfer student, I had the privilege of attending UC Irvine because of an educational pipeline that provides opportunity for all.”

She credits her family and faculty mentors with giving her the support and motivation she needed to succeed in higher education. After graduation, she’ll lead a summer residential program at UC Irvine for community college students and travel to her family’s homeland, El Salvador.

Rodriguez’s graduate school counterpart at the commencement ceremony will be Jessica Pratt, who is receiving a Ph.D. in ecology & evolutionary biology. The two will precede Obama on the program.

Pratt, a community ecologist, studies conservation biology and restoration ecology. Her research examines the effects of climate change on local plant and animal communities, and she has taught courses on topics such as conservation in modern society. In the fall, Pratt will begin a faculty position in UC Irvine’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; she’ll teach classes in the global sustainability minor.

On June 14, she plans to speak about the campus’s history of innovative and groundbreaking research and environmental commitment.

“UC Irvine is a global leader in sustainability in education and from an operations standpoint,” says Pratt, the first person in her Midwestern family to graduate from college. “We have decades’ worth of climate change research, with seminal discoveries related to the impacts of chlorofluorocarbons and greenhouse gases to the currently melting glaciers and ice caps. The ability to conduct high-caliber research is what drew me to UC Irvine.”

An interdisciplinary approach to sustainability and other important issues is key, she notes.

“At UC Irvine, engineers and artists work with biologists and social ecologists and political scientists on big environmental and social challenges,” Pratt says. “My message to graduates is to continue working across disciplines. It’s the only way we’re going to find solutions to serious problems.”

Her research at UC Irvine has been funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation, among others. Pratt, who started a family during graduate school, says that federal and state grants were critical to her success: “I was able to pursue my Ph.D. while not having to make a major trade-off in the type of life I wanted to lead.”

The commencement event kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday at Angel Stadium. School-based ceremonies, in which graduates are individually recognized, will take place Sunday and Monday, June 15 and 16, on the UC Irvine campus.