Nearly 9,000 freshmen and transfer students – the largest-ever incoming class – will arrive at the University of California, Irvine over the next few days. Awaiting them will be such Welcome Week activities as the New Student Convocation, a Guinness world record attempt in four-quadrant dodgeball and the opening of the campus’s eSports arena.

  • UCI's groundbreaking, 3,500-square-foot eSports arena features 80 custom gaming PCs and a live webcasting studio to broadcast matches to millions of viewers. Home to the campus's inaugural League of Legends team, the space will also be available to casual gamers for about $4 per hour. Its grand opening Friday is just one of many Welcome Week events. Steve Zylius / UCI

The large cohort is the result of an effort to better serve residents of California. UCI boosted in-state freshman admissions by 15.6 percent and transfer admissions by 27.3 percent this year. And what an exceptional group they are: The mean GPA of admitted California residents is 4.10.

“The word is out: UCI is a first-choice school for talented students of all backgrounds,” says Chancellor Howard Gillman. “We have created an extraordinary incoming class.”

It includes a self-described nerd who left Vietnam when he was 7, an internationally renowned “League of Legends” player who will join UCI’s inaugural eSports team, and a student who says she narrowly avoided being “another dropout from South Central.”

The graduate and professional student population is impressive as well. Once a first-generation UCI freshman, Richelle Homo is now starting her first year at UCI’s School of Medicine.

Here are their stories.


He builds robots, devours superhero comic books and collects Power Rangers action figures and toy soldiers.

If it sounds a shade geeky, well, Jacob Nguyen offers no apologies.

Jacob Nguyen
Jacob Nguyen

“I’m a total nerd,” the incoming UCI freshman says proudly. “As a kid, I was always scared that label would get me bullied. But I’ve learned to embrace what I love.”

It’s a marked shift from the shy 7-year-old who left a Vietnamese fishing village in 2005 and crossed the Pacific with his parents and little brother. “Adjusting to life in America was overwhelming, to say the least,” Nguyen recalls, noting that his family bounced around from Buena Park to Stanton to Anaheim while he was in elementary school. “But having a younger sibling gave me the motivation to stay positive not only for me, but for him.”

Things got easier as Nguyen began learning English. Friendships blossomed, and by high school, he was captain of the varsity tennis squad and leading a competitive robotics team. He also got hooked on video games, cartoons and the Flash, his favorite superhero.

Nguyen’s parents also adapted to the new environment. His father, who had been a motorcycle mechanic in Vietnam, became a factory assembler here. And his mom, a nurse in her homeland, found work as a manicurist. In 2011, the entire family – which now includes a kid sister born in the States – gained U.S. citizenship.

At UCI, as a mechanical engineering major, Nguyen hopes to sharpen his robotics skills to the point that he could someday “help produce a robot that works on the same level as R2-D2 or C-3PO.” He chose UCI for its “green serenity” and relative closeness to his family. “My parents wanted me nearby, so UCI seemed like a good compromise because it feels like I’m moving away from home every day I go to the campus,” he says.


Mariana Del Cid
Mariana Del Cid

Being handcuffed by the cops was bad enough. But facing her dad – a Guatemalan immigrant who had worked so hard to care for his two daughters after their mom abandoned the family – broke Mariana Del Cid’s heart.

She was in eighth grade at the time. Lonely after transferring from a distant magnet school to her neighborhood junior high in Watts, Del Cid fell in with “the wrong crowd.” On this day, she and six friends were arrested for ditching class and partying inside a deserted house.

Her father “didn’t say a word” as he drove her home from the scene, but his disappointment was palpable, and it crushed her, Del Cid recalls. “At that moment, I knew I needed to turn my life around. I didn’t want to be a statistic – another dropout from South Central. That’s what everyone expects.”

So she found new friends (most of her old ones later quit school and had babies), buckled down on classwork and even began rising at 5 a.m. to train for two L.A. Marathons. When it came time to apply for college, UCI seemed an ideal respite from her chaotic surroundings. “When I visited the campus, I loved the trees and how peaceful it was,” Del Cid says. “My home is the opposite. L.A. is so loud – and dangerous. I felt safe at UCI.”

This fall, the 17-year-old freshman begins working toward a degree in psychology & social behavior. Although undecided on a career, “I know I want to help people, preferably one-on-one,” she says.

Much of that altruism flows from Del Cid’s past. “I used to cry every single Mother’s Day because I grew up without that support. My mom wasn’t there to tell me about boys or my body changing. I feel stronger because I pushed through everything and got to UCI. … Now I want to help others in the way I would have wanted to be helped.”


Hailing from Bulgaria, the dude known as BloodWater achieved video game fame for “stealing Baron with a rank one Janna tornado.” In “League of Legends” lingo, that’s roughly equivalent to swiping a basketball mid-slam dunk, then spinning around and launching it into the hoop at the other end of the court.

Lyubomir Spasov
Lyubomir Spasov

Shortly after that feat, Lyubomir “BloodWater” Spasov vanished from sight. In June, The Daily Dot referred to him as “one of the best ‘League of Legends’ players who retired too young.”

Not quite.

This fall, at the ripe old age of 23, Spasov – who now lives in Fontana – is returning to the game as a member of UCI’s new eSports team.

He was driving to class at Chaffey College when a friend texted him about UCI’s inaugural program for academically qualified gamers, which helps cover tuition and lets Anteater players keep any winnings they earn from matches.

Selected for one of five scholarships, Spasov praises UCI for giving “League of Legends” aces “the opportunity to study what they love while continuing their passion for competitive gaming.”

Spasov, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago with his parents and older brother, has been playing since age 7. His father, a former military officer in Bulgaria, introduced him to video games as a reward for good grades. From there, his competitive nature took over. After finishing high school, he decided to turn pro, competing in international tournaments and building a reputation as one of North America’s premier “League of Legends” support players.

His folks were less than thrilled.

“They were not very supportive because playing professionally doesn’t offer a stable source of income,” Spasov says. That changed when UCI offered a scholarship.

Here, he’ll major in (surprise) computer science, with an eye toward gaining experience in the artificial intelligence field.


From the ashes of disaster, some dreams grow. Such happened to Richelle Homo ’16, who on Sept. 11, 2001, sat in a New York City hospital as her mother battled complications after the difficult, premature birth of Homo’s little sister – and as doctors and nurses responded to an incoming flood of patients affected by the fall of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

“I was angered, scared and confused by how such a tragedy devastated so many,” she says. “But I also was amazed by the healthcare professionals who expertly triaged the situation, and I found inspiration in the people who risked their own lives for the betterment of others.”

At the time, her Chinese Filipino immigrant parents could only hold odd jobs and afford to live in a small basement, where Homo shared a couch as a bed. Her experience at the chaotic hospital – along with that of caring for her siblings as their parents worked – launched Homo’s dream of becoming a doctor and serving her country.

She took a big step toward achieving both this fall quarter at UCI, joining the first-year class in the School of Medicine and accepting a U.S. Army commission as a second lieutenant. Her ultimate aim, Homo says, is to be a Medical Corps physician, treating troops, veterans and their families, while being prepared to work for local and global aid groups.

After 9/11, her parents eventually moved the family to Southern California, where they found work in the healthcare field. After high school, Homo attended UCI, where she excelled, graduating this June summa cum laude in chemistry and biological sciences with Campuswide Honors and receiving the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction. In addition, she was chosen to speak at the School of Physical Sciences’ Honors Awards Ceremony, at which she gave an inspirational talk about service and perseverance.

Richelle Homo
Richelle Homo

Along with her new classmates, Homo began medical school Aug. 5 with the White Coat Ceremony, an annual rite of passage at which incoming students donned their first physician’s coat before an audience of beaming friends and family members at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

It was a night she will never forget.

“The White Coat Ceremony was a grand celebration and an intimate experience that celebrated my commitment to the scientific and human values essential to medical practice and my sincere gratitude toward my parents for being the stronghold of our family,” Homo says. “I dedicated the ceremony to them.”

She adds: “Getting into medical school means that I will be able to develop the clinical and cultural skill sets to combat healthcare issues that plague our communities. Getting into medical school means that I am a step closer to achieving my goal of providing safe, high-quality patient care to those in most need of it.”