Being first is nothing new for Eloy Oakley ’96, MBA ’99. He’s the firstborn of three children, the first in his family to have graduated from college, the first Latino and only University of California regent to have headed a community college, and the first Latino to be named chancellor of California Community Colleges. He has been president of Long Beach City College since 2007 and will take the helm of the state’s 113-school community college system – comprising more than 2.1 million students – in December.
Oakley didn’t attend the University of California, Irvine immediately after high school. He first served in the U.S. Army for four years and then enrolled in community college before transferring to UCI, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis & design and an MBA. Oakley feels that his Army training and community college initiation helped prepare him for the university experience by improving his time management skills and building his self-confidence.
“Although I was an older student, I never felt like I didn’t fit in at UCI,” he says. “The biggest struggle I faced was just internalizing that I deserved to be in the UC system and that I could succeed. I was treated with respect by the staff and faculty, who held me to the same standards as every other student.”
Oakley didn’t view himself as a role model for other first-generation college students until after he’d graduated. It was then he realized that his example could help others like him believe that getting a university education was something they could achieve. Even more rewarding, Oakley says, was recognizing that because of his accomplishments, his own children and grandchildren would have every expectation of earning a degree themselves.
Students who are first in their families to attend college – which describes more than half of UCI’s undergraduate population – face unique obstacles. Oakley thinks universities must develop strategies to “reach them where they’re at and help them navigate unfamiliar territory.” He was excited to learn about the First Generation First Quarter Challenge, a peer-to-peer mentoring program UCI launched this fall in which first-generation upperclassmen assist incoming first-generation students.
“This program is one of the most important contributions the university makes to the future of California and our nation,” Oakley says. “I am very grateful for the opportunities UCI gave me and my family.”