Yelennia Palacios, with her husband, Julio, and their 2-year-old son, Solomon, received her M.D. in May. A first-generation college student, she entered UCI's School of Medicine through the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community, which lets students work toward an M.D. and a master's at the same time and focuses on the distinctive healthcare needs of the Latino community. Steve Zylius / UCI

The Bren Events Center at the University of California, Irvine will host more than 8,000 newly minted Anteater alumni and their families over four days of graduation ceremonies scheduled for Friday, June 10, through Monday, June 13.

In a testament to UCI’s commitment to access and affordability, 49.3 percent of the degrees will be awarded to first-generation college graduates. The high percentage of traditionally underserved students and their corresponding high graduation rates earned UCI the top spot last year in a New York Times ranking of universities that do the most for low-income students.

An analysis of a new Student Achievement Measure also ranked UCI tied for first place in successfully moving students through their educational careers in a timely manner. The SAM, which includes 54 participating colleges in four states (California, Maryland, Missouri and South Carolina) found that 92 percent of UCI students graduate within 150 percent of the normal time (six years for four-year students and three years for transfer students). UCI tied with UCLA in this measure, which was developed by a coalition of organizations mainly representing public colleges and was funded by the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corp.

Chancellor Howard Gillman had this message for students as they prepare for graduation: “Even after you leave our classrooms and say farewell to your professors, I hope you will continue to carry inside you not only memories, but also the lingering essence of our world of inquiry and discovery. You have earned your degree, but your education has just begun.”

Here are some stories from the outstanding and diverse class of 2016:


It isn’t easy writing a dissertation with your newborn wailing in the next room and your poet-rapper husband – who goes by the stage name Propaganda – on tour in Russia. But somehow Alma Zaragoza-Petty, Ph.D. ’16 not only pulled that off, but also found time to run in a few half-marathons. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Acapulco, Mexico, and Watts by garment-worker parents who never earned more than minimum wage, the energetic education student is the first in her family to finish high school and graduate from college. Inspired by her own educational experiences, Zaragoza-Petty is exploring ways to improve classroom instruction and university access for low-income, first-generation and other underrepresented youths. She has also mentored incoming graduate students at UCI and amassed a bundle of academic accolades and fellowships on campus. After commencement, Zaragoza-Petty hopes to continue her research as a postdoc and eventually become a college professor.


Call him Mr. Sustainability. Since jumping to UCI from Saddleback College two years ago, Cody Lee ’16 has been a whirlwind of environmental activism. He joined UCI’s Global Sustainability Resource Center as a student assistant, explored an El Salvador town that had banned plastic, became one of the university’s first Climate Action Fellows and even demonstrated a bicycle-powered blender on campus. The social ecology major traces his eco-awakening to a free retreat at UCI’s Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. “To attend, you had to be minoring in global sustainability, so I added that to my major and signed up,” Lee recalls. After the excursion, which featured team-building exercises, hikes, leadership training and sustainable meals, he returned to civilization ready to fight fossil fuels. His subsequent dedication and scholarship got him named Outstanding Undergraduate Student at this year’s Lauds & Laurels ceremony. Lee’s post-degree plans are still coming into focus (“I’m like a leaf in the breeze right now,” he says), but the options include studying restorative justice in San Francisco or learning Spanish and researching permaculture in Central America.


At Downey High School, where Yelennia Palacios first dreamed of becoming a doctor, an adviser recommended UCI for its stellar biology program. And now, 12 years later – after receiving a bachelor’s in biological sciences here in 2007 and a Master of Studies in Law at UC Hastings College of the Law – she has accomplished her goal and earned a UCI medical degree. With her husband, Julio, and their 2-year-old son, Solomon, she’s moving south to serve her residency in family medicine at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista. Palacios entered UCI’s School of Medicine through the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community. The first of its kind in the U.S., PRIME-LC lets students work toward an M.D. and a master’s at the same time and focuses on the distinctive healthcare needs of the Latino community. Palacios says her story – born to Mexican immigrants, she and her sister are the first in the family to attend college – shows that by following your dreams, anything is possible. “I’m still thinking big,” she adds. “With what I’ve learned in PRIME-LC, I can see myself becoming a leader in a large organization dedicated to improving public health. You never know what might be in the future.”


A freeway crash changed everything for David Saldana ’16. A few days before Christmas 2009, a car carrying his older brother spun out of control and slammed into a post, leaving his sibling with some rather puzzling symptoms. Emerging from a coma two weeks later, the young man began singing in Spanish and addressing family members as numerals instead of by name. (“My sister was ‘7’ and my mother became ‘10,’” Saldana recalls.) Despite significant strides since then, the sibling has yet to fully recover. But the ordeal did produce at least one silver lining. Observing his brother’s struggles, Saldana developed a deep curiosity about the brain and a passion for helping those in similar straits, he says. At UCI, the Whittier High School grad majored in neurobiology, tested a potential Alzheimer’s drug on mice and shadowed doctors at UCI Medical Center. Outside the classroom, he helped lead a Catholic student group and learned to play the guitar. The first in his family to finish college (his parents came to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico), Saldana now plans to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in occupational therapy so he can assist people with brain disorders, mental disabilities and neurological trauma.


From alcoholic to astrophysicist. That’s the journey that Sky Phillips ’16 embarked on six years ago. After being jailed on a DUI warrant, the unemployed 32-year-old resolved to stop drinking and get his life together. As part of the turnaround, he enrolled at Saddleback College and somehow gravitated toward studying astronomy. “My family is all blue-collar construction workers, so my interest in science must have come from somewhere else, like the Discovery Channel,” Phillips says. Since transferring to UCI, he has tutored physics students, won an undergraduate research/departmental service award and moonlighted – literally – as a night sky tour guide to elementary schoolchildren, Scout troops, classmates and the general public. Having gazed at everything from the Orion Nebula to a supernova, the physics major says his favorite celestial objects are closer to home: Jupiter, Saturn, the moon and the sun. After graduation, Phillips plans to pursue a master’s in astronomy at San Diego State University, then teach at a community college.


Circus contortionists, a daredevil skateboarder who jumped the Great Wall of China, and a seminarian who ditched the priesthood to become a tattoo artist. Those are a few of the characters Michaela Holland ’16 has interviewed while studying literary journalism at UCI. The oldest of six children in a family from tiny Nipomo, Calif., Holland is part campus media mogul, part professional dancer. On the journalism side, she launched and led Anteater TV, revamped KUCI News and helped devise a smartphone app that will offer content from both of those outlets, as well as articles from New University. On the entertainment front, she danced at Disneyland, SeaWorld and Legoland – and in 2014 put her classes on hold for a nine-month stint playing Mulan aboard a Disney cruise ship. Holland also joined a campus hip-hop troupe, taught in a children’s ministry program at her church and won a Chancellor’s Award of Distinction. UCI “is the type of school where you can make anything happen,” she says, “because it isn’t neck-deep in tradition.”


Knowing scarcely a word of English, Jaruwan Amtawong ’16 was whisked from her native Thailand to a lakefront boarding school in New Hampshire at age 18, courtesy of the Royal Thai Government. It was the first part of a coveted full-ride scholarship program that also brought her to UCI a year later – after she had absorbed sufficient English skills from her roommates – and will send her to UC Berkeley this fall for a postgraduate degree. In Irvine, the chemistry major’s activities included tutoring homeless children through School on Wheels, conducting research on undersea methane gas and writing scripts for a video series that uses dancers to teach science concepts. Amtawong hopes to ultimately earn a Ph.D. in chemistry, then return to Thailand to work as a university professor. She wants to bring some American-style educational methods back to her homeland. “I like how open and expressive people are here,” she says. “Schools in Thailand need more creativity and faculty-student interaction.”

Katherine Lai

Growing up in smoggy Hong Kong, Katherine Lai ’16 dreamed of one day working to fix the city’s notorious pollution problems. That core desire to make a difference still guides the chemical engineering major, whose family moved to Southern California when she was 13. At UCI, Lai became president of Anteaters’ Habitat for Humanity, organizing beach cleanups and helping to build or repaint houses for people in need. She also pitched in with freshman orientation sessions and led the campus chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. This spring, she received a Chancellor’s Award of Distinction. The thing that sold Lai on UCI when she visited the campus as an Arcadia High School senior was the layout. “Everything is in a circle, so you never get lost and everything ties together,” she says. Coming full circle herself, Lai’s first job after graduation is tied to her childhood desire to combat smog. She’ll be working for an environmental consulting firm that monitors emissions and assists oil companies, food manufacturers and other clients in complying with the Clean Air Act.


After two weeks without technology on a Costa Rica farm – conducting research as part of a UCI global sustainability program – Medha Asthana ’16 revamped her “entitled millennial” lifestyle. Upon her return to Irvine, the anthropology and business administration major switched to cold showers and began composting in her apartment. “Costa Rica marks this moment when I first started listening to other voices,” she says. “Up until then, everything I was doing was kind of egocentric.” For her next act, Asthana studied abroad in Santiago, Chile, exploring political dissent. During her stay, she also interned at Londres 38, a torture center under former dictator Augusto Pinochet that has been converted to a memorial. There, she translated survivor testimonials from Spanish to English. Asthana later received a UCI Alumni Association Distinguished Anteater Award, and she was chosen as this year’s School of Social Sciences commencement speaker. After graduation, she plans to either travel to Uruguay for research as a Fulbright Scholar (she’s in the running for one of the program’s international grants) or seek work in a community organization.