"I wanted to enroll at a university that was the complete inverse of where I was raised and a new culture to embrace. I felt that in order to grow as an individual, I needed to be exposed to different ideals and beliefs," says Demetrious Rivera (right), with fellow first-gen freshmen and STEM majors Linda Thao and Frank Acuna. Steve Zylius / UCI

Focused on the future

We profile three incoming first-gen freshmen majoring in STEM fields

This fall, first-generation college students will make up more than half of UCI’s incoming class: 52 percent of California-resident freshmen and 54 percent of transfers. Those majoring in science, technology, engineering or math are in the spotlight this year as UCI focuses on helping first-gen students succeed in STEM fields.

In June, The New York Times’ College Access Index ranked UCI the No. 1 university “doing the most for the American dream,” based on its commitment to economic diversity and upward mobility. Students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education are supported through such programs as the First Generation Faculty Initiative and the First Generation First Quarter Challenge. And in August, UCI received a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will fund a spring 2018 conference on increasing the number of Latinos graduating with STEM degrees.

“One of the biggest barriers for first-generation students is an understanding of the pathways through the various STEM majors. Providing them with accurate and timely information to help make informed decisions is an important step in helping them overcome this barrier,” says Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning. “We hope to find better systems for supporting first-gen students’ ability to navigate these pathways, and we expect that this will naturally lead to more of them in the STEM fields.”

Here are the stories of three incoming first-generation STEM Anteaters:

Linda Thao of Sacramento elected to attend UCI because of its stature as a world-class research institution – which is hugely beneficial for a mathematics major. With computational skills she learned from her dad, Thao had breezed through most of her high school math classes. She knew she wanted to earn a degree in a STEM discipline but only decided on mathematics after taking a grueling calculus class during her junior year.

“I struggled more than ever, but I ended up loving it,” Thao says. “The challenge always kept me thinking.”

At her high school, nearly all the students came from low-income families, and many were the first in their families to aspire to college. Thao was “surrounded by peers just as eager as I was to attend a university,” as well as counselors, teachers and administrators who encouraged her to consider UCI for its strong STEM programs and reputation for supporting first-generation students.

Aside from its distinguished math faculty, Thao chose UCI for its beach weather and the sense of independence it affords her away from her Northern California home. She’s looking forward to “cooking in the great dorm kitchens,” managing schoolwork and experiencing college on her own – even if it’s a challenge.

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Frank Acuna will start at UCI as a biological sciences major this month, satisfying a lifelong desire to study the natural world. He grew up watching Animal Planet “almost constantly” and, as a teenager, corralled a variety of pets, including lizards, frogs, chameleons and snakes. Acing a biology class in ninth grade prompted him to move on to an Advanced Placement biology course, which cemented his love for the subject.

“I’m very passionate about living things,” Acuna says. “The way that plants and animals function is just endlessly fascinating. The more I learn about them, the more I want to know.”

As a high school student in Los Angeles, he excelled in his STEM classes as well as in student government, track, yearbook production and the Chicano Club. His mom was a big influence. “She always made sure I knew I was headed for college, helping me with homework, having me go on campus tours and researching the best universities for me from a young age,” Acuna says. “It was never not an option for me.”

Once he settles in at UCI, he’s most excited to study abroad – “anywhere in the world, as long as it offers opportunities to research and explore,” he says – and work toward his dream of becoming a naturopathic physician, developing and administering plant-based, natural medicines.

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Only 3 percent of residents in small, rural Farmersville, California, are university graduates. Demetrious Rivera is determined to join their ranks. Encouraged by counselors and friends, he has participated in college preparatory programs since middle school, with the goal of leaving his hometown and attending UCI as a biomedical engineering major.

“I knew I wanted to enroll at a university that was the complete inverse of where I was raised and a new culture to embrace,” Rivera says. “I felt that in order to grow as an individual, I needed to be exposed to different ideas and beliefs, so I can broaden my perspective beyond my little bubble.”

Though his high school was primarily vocational training-oriented, he decided to seek a biomedical engineering degree after he tore his ACL playing football in the seventh grade. While undergoing physical therapy for the injury, Rivera took an interest in watching videos and documentaries about prosthetics. Coming from a military family, he knew that many veterans are amputees, and he developed a plan to graduate from college and eventually work for a government organization or therapeutic center that helps design prosthetics for former service members.

Rivera’s high school didn’t have a strong science department – agricultural chemistry was among the only classes offered – so he’s been taking a chemistry course at his local community college this summer to “feel prepared when classes start at UCI.”

“Overall, the college application process was slightly difficult as a first-generation student,” Rivera says, “but I’m so glad I had the tenacity to find resources and people who helped me get where I am, ready to study biomedical engineering as an Anteater.”

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