Students from Santa Ana College and Whittier’s Rio Hondo College recently wheeled their suitcases toward Middle Earth housing in preparation for an intense, 10-day residential program intended to prepare community college attendees for the rigors of university life.

UC Irvine’s Summer Scholars Transfer Institute, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a collaboration between community colleges and UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships. Participants live in campus dorms and complete a University of California-transferable course during their stay. In addition, they have access to UCI computer and library facilities.

The goal of the free program is to ensure that community college students receive the academic and social support they need to successfully transition to a four-year university. According to the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to improving access to higher education, just 23 percent of the state’s community college enrollees transfer to a university within six years.

Susana Valeria, who’s about to start her third year at Santa Ana College, signed up for the Summer Scholars Transfer Institute to challenge herself academically. She hopes to transfer to a four-year university in the fall of 2015 and major in theater and anthropology.

“My main motivation for being here is to realize that if I can pass this class, I can pass any UC class,” Valeria says as she waits in line for her dorm assignment. “I’m happy to be away from home for the first time and to meet new people,” she adds. “It’s exciting.”

There are 100 participants in this summer’s institute, which offers a choice of UC-transferable courses in English, Earth science and communication. Six UC Irvine undergrads and new grads serve as teaching assistants, and academic counselors from the community colleges also work with the students, who spend six to eight hours a day in the classroom.

Recent graduate Jacqueline Rodriguez – who had the honor of speaking at UCI’s June commencement, where she taught President Barack Obama how to make the “Zot!” sign – is an Earth science TA. She transferred to UC Irvine from Rio Hondo College and can relate to her charges.

“The TAs are usually transfer students as well, and it’s comforting to them to see that we succeeded at UCI and are now graduating,” Rodriguez says. “Programs like SSTI are really valuable, as they give students an idea of what university life is like.”

Her job involves leading study sessions and grading papers; she even conducted a hands-on geology lesson at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. In addition, she helps participants acclimate to the fast pace of the academic schedule and encourages them when the pressure becomes overwhelming.

“I think the biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going,” says Rodriguez, who’ll begin working toward a Ph.D. in education this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The material is at a higher level than they’re used to, and some of them are getting stressed out.”

Aundrea Colunga, a third-year student at Santa Ana College, enrolled in the program on a friend’s recommendation. She aims to study kinesiology at a California State University school.

“I’m really excited about staying in the dorms,” Colunga says. “I feel like I’m experiencing college life for the first time by living on campus and taking such a difficult course.”

The SSTI also includes workshops on how to apply to a university, write a personal statement, secure financial aid and select a major. On “advising day,” representatives from UC campuses meet one-on-one with students to discuss academic plans.

While the overall goal is that participants successfully complete a university-level course, organizers hope they glean more intangible benefits as well.

“The social opportunities are important,” says Elaine Lipiz Gonzalez, director of the SAGE Scholars program and an SSTI coordinator. “We want to create a balanced experience. A huge part of college is connecting with others, finding yourself and learning how to create support systems among your peers.”