UCI alumni, from left, Keith Curry, Jackie Lacey and Windell Middlebrooks talk about education and careers.

Alumni as history-makers

In recognition of Black History Month, three UCI graduates reflect on education, careers

When you ask Keith Curry, Ed.D. ’11 what he is most proud of as CEO of the Compton Community College District, he gets up from his chair and motions for you to follow him. The path leads from his office in El Camino College Compton Center’s 1950s-era administration building to the Library-Student Success Center.

Curry beams as he enters the sun-filled, two-story, modern glass structure that houses a computer lab, a library and study rooms. The facility opened in March after a seven-year delay due to construction issues and legal matters.

“I want to give people hope,” he says. “You can be from Compton and be a success. Every student can be successful with the right academic and support services. I want students to feel special and at home.”

Upgrading the school’s aging infrastructure has been his priority since Curry was appointed interim CEO in 2011. That’s why completion of the new Library-Student Success Center was such an achievement.

“The name says it all,” he notes. “The Student Success Center is the place to go if students want to be successful.” Tutoring, supplemental instruction and library resources are available to all, whether they’re pursuing classes, programs, certificates or A.A./A.S. degrees.

As CEO, Curry manages the college’s $32 million annual budget; establishes its policies, goals and benchmarks; oversees senior personnel; and functions as an administrative team builder. He also determines the direction of the campus while setting the tone of the institutional culture.

Curry led a campaign to pass a $100 million facilities bond. In November, Measure C was approved by 78 percent of voters in Compton, Lynwood, Paramount and Willowbrook, as well as portions of other nearby cities. It will allow the Compton Community College District to upgrade classrooms, labs, infrastructure and instructional equipment while also making much-needed health and safety repairs and energy efficiency improvements.

“We would never have seen the passage of Measure C without the completion of the Student Success Center,” Curry says. “It gave people confidence in supporting the measure.”

The CEO earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies from UC Santa Cruz and an Ed.D. in educational administration from UC Irvine and UCLA – a joint program that was phased out in 2007 as UCI chose to focus on its Ph.D. in education program.

His has given back to UCI’s School of Education, creating a scholarship for doctoral students in education who have demonstrated academic excellence and unusual perseverance. He is also working with UCI’s Early Academic Outreach Program to establish a scholarship for students attending high school in the Compton Unified School District and enrolling at UCI in the fall of 2015.

“Keith Curry has been a wonderful, longtime supporter of UCI’s School of Education,” says Dean Deborah Vandell. “The faculty and students in the school consider Keith to be an important resource for the practitioner perspective, and all of us are inspired by his generosity and commitment to paying it forward for the next generation.”

Making her case: District Attorney Jackie Lacey ’79

When UC Irvine alumna Jackie Lacey announced that she was running for Los Angeles County district attorney, many people thought she didn’t stand a chance. In the 150-year history of the office, there had never been a female or an African American in the top job. “The fellas,” as Lacey jokingly calls the former district attorneys, “all looked alike.”

That changed on Dec. 3, 2012, when she was sworn in as the county’s first female and first African American district attorney after prevailing in the California general election. Lacey now oversees the nation’s largest prosecutorial office, with about 1,000 deputy district attorneys, 300 investigators and 800 support staff.

She’s come a long way – from a girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood of LA to chief prosecutor – and UC Irvine played a key role in her transformation.

“This university caused me to become a lawyer,” she says. Lacey returned to her alma mater shortly after the election to give a talk at the Cross-Cultural Center about her undergraduate days and to receive UC Irvine’s first Distinguished Professional in Public Service Award.

She enrolled here as a psychology major in 1975 with the idea of eventually earning a teaching credential. But a summer job at a local elementary school convinced her that teaching wasn’t her calling.

“You have to be good with kids in order to spend every day – every day – in a classroom with 30 of them,” Lacey says.

Unsure of her direction, she took an introductory law course her junior year that included sitting in on trials at the Santa Ana courthouse.

“I fell into a class that would change the trajectory of my life. There, I discovered that I loved being in the courtroom,” Lacey says. “For me, it provided so much theater. … You never knew when a curse word was going to come out of someone’s mouth and cause you to laugh when you shouldn’t laugh, or when a judge was going to say, ‘Knock it off,’ or when the litigants would fight. I liked that edge of never knowing what was going to happen.”

She also was inspired by one of the class’s guest lecturers, an African American lawyer named Irma Brown, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

“It was something about that woman’s mannerisms, the passion she had in her voice, the way she looked, the fact that she had come from a background that I had come from, that made me say, ‘I could be like her. I could do that,’” she says.

Lacey was the first in her family to go to college. Her parents both fled discrimination in the South in the 1950s and found jobs in Los Angeles, where they met. Her mother, Addie Phillips, worked in a garment factory, and her father, Louis Phillips (now deceased), worked for the city, cleaning vacant lots.

When Lacey told her parents she wanted to be a lawyer, they were thrilled. The change in career choices proved a turning point.

“Like everything in my life, I judge whether I’m making the right decision … by whether or not the doors are opening up,” she says. “If they are, it’s probably the right path.”

Lacey hopes her historic victory will encourage other minorities and women to pursue careers in law enforcement. Her message to the UC Irvine students – many of them young African Americans – who turned out for her recent talk:

“Whatever your dreams are, whatever your purpose in life, whatever your calling … step out in faith and go forward. Stop waiting. Something that seems at first to be impossible may merely be difficult. Do not be afraid of the difficult. Keep going.”

Special delivery: Windell D. Middlebrooks, actor 

Windell Middlebrooks became a cult hero to many, thanks to antics as the delivery guy in Miller High Life commercials such as revoking beer-selling privileges at a snooty French restaurant. The hit ad campaign led to more audition opportunities and guest-starring roles, helping him land the role of Dr. Curtis Brumfield on the television drama “Body of Proof,” which lasted three seasons. As he did with the delivery guy, Middlebrooks infused his blustery character with humor and homespun wisdom. He also had a recurring roles on the Disney Channel series such as “The Suite Life on Deck” and “Mighty Med.”

He got his charming Southern accent growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, and his everyman persona from his hardworking grandfather and uncles.

Since earning a master’s degree in drama at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts in 2005, Middlebrooks has worked steadily. His many TV credits include appearances on “Scrubs,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Entourage” and “Parks and Recreation.”

It was during an internship in an L.A. casting office that he decided he needed more education than he’d received at Sterling College, Kansas.

“I knew I had the timing, I had the humor, but I wanted to learn how to make it happen when I needed it to happen – over and over,” he says. “I just didn’t feel ready. I felt I needed to go to grad school. I chose UC Irvine because I wanted a program on the West Coast that was close to the industry but far enough away for me to focus on acting, where I could take the time to learn what I bring to the table.

After he met drama professor Eli Simon and associate professor of drama Philip Thompson and toured the campus, he knew he’d found his place.

“I called my mom and said, ‘I think I found it.’ ”

He says he benefited from stage training, honing in on the ability to do take after take, and do something different and fresh every time.

“You can be on take 22, and it still has to be honest, real or funny. I learned that at UCI. Because of that training, I could go into auditions with confidence.

The breakthrough beer commercials helped him get other auditions. Now, he’s in a place where he can try anything.

“I love each genre – film, stage, television. I’m reading film scripts, but I want to choose the right projects. I love the stage and want to perform on Broadway someday. I also eventually want to do a multicamera sitcom, because I love comedy. I’m that eclectic. If you’re riding with me in my car, you might hear Rascal Flatts, Jay-Z or Whitney [Houston]. I love different things.

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