UCI News

The American Dream Personified

From helping homeless youths to leading California’s community college system, UCI alumni are living out the American dream in myriad ways. Tenacious, intelligent and driven, they have overcome adversity to achieve their visions and make a difference in their communities and in the world. On the following pages, we explore just a small sampling of the fascinating success stories created by UCI graduates.

by UCI Magazine | October 2, 2018

Jackie Lacey ’79 | psychology

District attorney of Los Angeles County

Steve Zylius / UCI

The most satisfying case so far in Jackie Lacey’s career was prosecuting Milton Walker Jr.’s killers. It was 1999, the UCI alumna was a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, and the murder was the first tried as a hate crime in California.

“Milton was a homeless, 40-year-old addict, and these skinheads were looking for an African American to kill so they could earn the right to get a lightning bolt tattoo conferred by their gang,” Lacey recalls, sitting behind the desk where she has served since 2012 as the 42nd L.A. district attorney. “I wanted to get justice for Milton.

Usually in these cases, family and friends call about progress on the case. Nobody called about Milton.”

She succeeded in winning three guilty verdicts – two for race-based murder and one for race-based involuntary manslaughter.

If not for an “introduction to the study of law” course at UCI, however, Lacey may not have become an attorney. Her journey to campus, her subsequent USC law degree, and her leadership of 1,000 lawyers, 300 investigators and 800 support staff have been fueled by family, faith and hard work.

“My parents came here from the South in the 1950s to escape discrimination,” she says. “They had no opportunity to go to college, but they believed that, for me, education was the path to a good job and an enhanced life. I remember my father accompanied me in touring UCI. A group of students of color – Thomas, Gerald and William Parham – were on the welcoming committee. They had us at hello.” (Thomas Parham would become UCI’s vice chancellor for student affairs.)

Lacey majored in psychology and planned to become a teacher. Then, in her junior year, she heard a law lecture by African American attorney Irma Brown (now a juvenile court judge), and she was hooked.

“I loved how she talked to the class, and I thought if I could get a message across like that, I’d be happy,”
Lacey says.

Today, as D.A., her message is the clear pursuit of justice. Under her leadership, prosecutors are educated in the scientific and medical aspects of child abuse, such as shaken baby syndrome, and how to communicate them to judges and juries. An award-winning “Blueprint for Change” report that she initiated spurred the training of law enforcement personnel to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill individuals and divert them from jail. She also created the Conviction Review Unit to reopen cases under the guidance of experienced detectives and seasoned prosecutors – if warranted. It has revisited 1,300 cases and freed two men from life sentences.

“There was some resistance within the department to this at first,” Lacey says, “but I encourage resistance. It’s my job – and part of my mission – to convince them it’s the right thing to do.”

She has also faced resistance from critics decrying decisions not to prosecute officers involved in shootings. She survived a recall attempt in 2017 after running unopposed for her second term a year earlier.

“I listen and try hard to understand and respect the point of view of groups like Black Lives Matter,” Lacey says, “but I was elected as D.A. to serve the whole community and to follow the law; it’s illegal to decide a case based on anything else. And the law allows police to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger.”

That said, she adds: “I deal with 48 different police agencies, and the number of people who die at the hands of police needs to be looked at.”

Lacey – who keeps a plaque on her office bookshelf that reads “Faith makes things possible, not easy” – says she has seen too many times what happens when young adults don’t have the family, faith or educational opportunities she has enjoyed. She met her husband, David, at church when she was 17, and they have a grown son and daughter.


“My parents came here from the South in the 1950s to escape discrimination. They had no opportunity to go to college, but they believed that, for me, education was the path to a good job and an enhanced life.”


Her advice to her children and other young people: “First, find the right mate. Then find an occupation you love. Success comes to people who work really hard, and if you’re going to put in long hours and blood, sweat and tears, it should be something that taps into your passion.”

The phone rings, and Lacey leaves her desk to take her mother’s call. Back in her high-backed leather chair, she says: “My mom was the oldest of 14 kids and couldn’t go to college. She raised a daughter who is the D.A. of the largest office in the nation. I take that seriously.

“We need more people from diverse backgrounds. It’s not about me; it’s about parents, teachers, friends, supporters. Someday I’d like people to say, ‘She was a good D.A. She protected the rights of the community.’”

 – Cathy Lawhon


David Lieu, M.D. ’79

Founder, Fine Needle Medical Aspiration Group

Dr. David Lieu employs a precise and brisk manner of speaking when explaining how he specializes in pathology but subspecializes in cytopathology (forming diagnoses from the study of single cells). Still more specifically, he adds, “I sub-subspecialize in fine-needle aspiration, or FNA, which means I take biopsy samples from patients using a very small needle and ultrasound guidance.”

His Alhambra-based clinic is one of the busiest FNA facilities in the nation, and the bustle suits Lieu. Decades ago, after studying chemistry at UC Berkeley as an undergrad, he worried that science might be “too slow” for him, so he applied to both chemistry and medical grad schools.

“I got accepted to both, but I decided to go to medical school and see how that worked out,” he says, with a laugh.

When the UCI School of Medicine accepted Lieu in 1975, he was a mere 19 years old, making him the youngest student ever at the time, and he remains one of its youngest graduates. (He credits his sprint through Berkeley’s chemistry program, in part, to having begun studying college-level textbooks while in junior high.)

Long before then, Lieu’s push to excel had begun as a push just to catch up with his classmates. His parents had immigrated to the U.S. from a farming region in southern China, settling in San Francisco. By the time Lieu was born (followed by three brothers), his father was operating a small grocery store and his mother worked as a hotel maid.

Steve Zylius / UCI

They had little education but instilled a reverence for learning in their children, with one small hitch. “We all spoke only Chinese at home, so when I started kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English,” Lieu recalls. “If I did something wrong, I’d get yelled at in a language I didn’t understand.” Even worse, spankings were still administered in schools, he adds, “so I was pretty motivated to learn.”

He says he’ll always be grateful for the chance UCI took on him. He was also taking a bit of a chance on UCI: The medical school had only opened seven years earlier and the entire university was but a decade old – and a fraction of its current size, with fewer than 10,000 students.

“Sometimes it seemed there were more rabbits than people on campus,” Lieu says. “You’d never meet up with anyone unless you were in a club. That’s where I met my wife, Diana.”

She got a degree in biological sciences (leading to a doctorate in pharmacy from USC) in 1979, the same year her husband graduated from med school at 23. He subsequently did his residency in anatomic & clinical pathology at USC, served a fellowship in cytopathology at UCLA, and earned an MBA at UC Berkeley.

Both the Lieus remain actively engaged with UCI, from hosting dinners for incoming students to funding one of the medical school’s largest scholarship programs, the Lieu Scholars in Medical Leadership Endowment. It supports promising students facing economic and other barriers, such as those Lieu encountered as a first-generation college student.

He recalls, “Being the first member in my family to make it out of high school, college was a mystery to us.” For one thing, Lieu didn’t seek financial aid because his parents feared that administrators would rescind his admission if they saw the family didn’t have much money. “The university doesn’t do that, but we didn’t know,” he says. “Only after I’d been attending for a while did I think I was safe and finally applied for – and got – a scholarship.”

As he does at campuses around the world these days, Lieu returns periodically to UCI to teach ultrasound-guided fine-needle aspiration. When he’s in front of an audience, Lieu says, he’s especially grateful for the wisdom his UCI teachers shared – and for how they did so.


“Being the first member in my family to make it out of high school, college was a mystery to us.”


“One instructor in particular, Dr. Thomas Cesario [who would later become dean of UCI’s School of Medicine], was an excellent speaker who communicated his passion and respect for medical knowledge,” Lieu says. “I was shy and not a good public speaker, and he inspired me to want to become one.”

When he gets high ratings for his teaching now, Lieu says, “the credit goes to my trying to be just like Dr. Cesario.”

As if working, teaching, lecturing, publishing papers and philanthropy weren’t enough, he plans to open a second office this year in Los Alamitos. Lieu could easily retire now but says: “If I work another five or six years, I’m hoping to save enough to endow a chair at Berkeley or Irvine. California’s universities have given so much education and opportunity to people like me that it’s natural to want to give something back.”

– Jim Washburn


Jennifer Friend ’95 | social ecology

CEO, Project Hope Alliance

To hear Jennifer Friend tell it, the defining move of her career entailed a 65 percent pay cut and a shift from litigating cases for a prestigious law firm to now sometimes cleaning up after potty-training young clients, along with myriad other tasks that might befall the CEO of a fast-growing nonprofit.

“I loved being a trial lawyer, but I’m living my purpose in this job. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she says.

“Where” is Costa Mesa-based Project Hope Alliance, of which Friend says, “Our focus is ending generational homelessness by helping to discover and fill the gaps in children’s social-emotional lives, physical lives – including housing – and, very particularly, education.”

Homelessness and poverty create obstacles to earning a high school diploma, the lack of which makes young adults 346 percent more likely than their peers to become homeless themselves, Friend says. To prevent that from becoming a generational cycle, Project Hope helps with mentoring, online curriculums, transportation, housing and intensive on-campus assistance.

Friend began volunteering with the organization in 2011 after seeing Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County.” In 2013, she quit her law job to become Project Hope’s CEO and has seen the nonprofit grow from serving 65 kids and parents to more than 1,000 today, in 92 K-12 schools.

Friend doesn’t have to imagine what homelessness is like: She and her three brothers spent much of their childhoods with their parents sharing a procession of budget motel rooms, where, she notes, “everything a family does happens in one shared room.”

Steve Zylius / UCI

She’d originally lived in a waterfront Newport Beach home, but things changed when she was in sixth grade. Her parents were loving, caring people, Friend says, but her father had tied his fortunes to cellular phones a decade too early, when they came in hulking briefcases. Soon the utilities were shut off, and water was borrowed from a neighbor’s hose. Next came eviction and years in motels and short-lived rentals.

Despite their uprooted childhoods, Friend and her siblings became successful adults. Her J.D. (from Whittier Law School) comes in handy in her current job, as does her social ecology education. “The law is very four-corners, while social ecology got me thinking across a broad system perspective,” she says. “That framed the way I think about what I do at Project Hope.”

While earning her UCI degree, Friend also worked 50-hour weeks. “To be candid, my affinity for UCI came after I graduated. I didn’t have time then to have a sense of shared experience,” she says. “Now I see so many

students at UCI with stories similar to mine who are

taking pride in themselves and learning skills that will make them that much more impactful once they

graduate. That makes me ridiculously proud.” Today she chairs the UCI Alumni Association.

In 2012, Friend turned to the university to actualize an idea she had for an art installation showing what a homeless child’s life can be like: a recreation of a motel room her family had lived in for nine months. She recalls: “I contacted Joseph Lewis [then dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts] and said, ‘You don’t know me, but
I have this crazy idea. Would you do it?’ And he said yes!”


“The odds are that your own kids are in class with kids who are homeless.”


The resulting “214 Sq. Ft.” has been displayed on campus and at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the Orange County Great Park and other locales. It’s slated to travel to New York this year to be exhibited at the off-Broadway
debut of “Nomad Motel,” a play inspired in part by Friend’s life. When not on tour, “214 Sq. Ft.” can be viewed at Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine.

Between frequent moves, school and teen jobs, Friend didn’t have much of a childhood. She says she makes up for it now, playing with the two children she has with
husband Rob Smith ’98, another UCI social ecology alum. She advises homeless kids that they may also have to defer their childhoods but that if they work hard and graduate, their time will come.

Friend says she’s “humbled beyond measure” by the generosity and kindness people have shown the youths under Project Hope’s wing – from large donations to small personal acts.

“The odds are that your own kids are in class with kids who are homeless,” she says. “One of the most direct things you can do is instill in your kids a sense of empathy for their classmates.

“One day growing up, my brothers and I were waiting at the gym for our mother to get off work. We didn’t have any money for snacks, and one friend sensed how hungry we were. I’m 48 now, but I still remember the pudding cups he brought us.”

– Jim Washburn


Joe Lacob ’78 | biological sciences

Owner & CEO, Golden State Warriors

Joe Lacob earned his way through UCI by selling peanuts at Angels baseball games. Now the Silicon Valley billionaire is at the top of his game in more ways than one.

He is majority owner of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, which in June won its third NBA championship in four years – heralding a new hoops dynasty. In addition, Lacob and the Warriors are looking forward to moving into a new $1 billion arena in San Francisco when the 2019-20 season opens.

It’s the fulfillment of a dream: He had wanted to own a team from the time he was 9. But accomplishing that goal required a herculean effort.

“As a kid, I came from extremely modest means,” says Lacob, 62, who attended Anaheim’s Katella High School and then earned a bachelor’s degree at UCI, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.

“I paid every dime of my education through college – every single dime,” he notes.

A peanut vendor from the ages of 14 through 21, he’s proud of the job he did in the stands. “The ballpark was just a mile from my house, most of the games were at night, and I loved being around sports,” Lacob says. “The commission I made was based on how hard I worked.”

Nonetheless, it’s a long way from peanut sales to courtside owner’s seats. UCI, he says, helped make it happen for him 40 years ago.

“You have to realize it was much different when I was a student there,” Lacob says of the campus. “It was very rural, with cows grazing on the hillsides and only about 8,000 students.” (Current enrollment tops 33,000.)

But he enrolled at UCI because he was curious about biological sciences and the school was emerging as a bastion of science instruction.


“Irvine had a great impact on my first career. It gave me the basis to succeed.”


“I had a great interest in neurosciences and psychobiology, and Jim McGaugh, one of the best-known researchers in the field, was there,” Lacob says, adding that the neurobiologist was among the most influential people in his educational career.

Now 86, James L. McGaugh is an award-winning research professor in neurobiology & behavior at UCI’s School of Biological Sciences and an active faculty fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, which he founded in 1983.

“Joe was a very curious, enthusiastic and ambitious undergraduate research student,” McGaugh recalls. “He was one of very few undergraduate research students in my laboratory who co-authored a published research paper. I expected him to flourish – and, of course, he has.”

Lacob remembers UCI fondly. “I was very active,” he says. “I needed 180 [units] to graduate, and I took 250 because I had a thirst for knowledge. Irvine had a great impact on my first career. It gave me the basis to succeed.”

After getting a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at UCI, he earned an M.P.H. in epidemiology at UCLA and an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Lacob credits his epidemiology (biostatistics) degree with providing him a background in statistics that helped drive his passion for sports. But his first field of interest was healthcare.

“During a 25-year career, I worked on about 70 startups, many in healthcare,” Lacob says of his time as a managing partner with the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “But during my whole life, my overriding dream was to be involved in sports and own a team. How you decide at 9 to do that I don’t know, but I did.”

Courtesy of Golden State Warriors

He’d always been a fan of the Boston Celtics. As a kid, he lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 60 miles south of Boston, before his family moved to Garden Grove. When the opportunity arose in 2006, Lacob became a minority owner of the Celtics and earned an NBA championship ring with them. In 2010, he moved on, leading an ownership group to purchase the Warriors with entertainment mogul Peter Guber.

The Warriors’ winning spirit has affected the Bay Area on multiple levels, not the least of which has been the charitable actions undertaken by Lacob. Since its 2012 inception, the Warriors Community Foundation has distributed more than $9.2 million in grants, with a major emphasis on education. Its president is Lacob’s wife, Nicole.

“As the first person in my family to attend college, education has always been a focus in my personal philanthropy,” he says. “Investing in kids who may not realize they can attain the goal of attending college is a vision Nicole and I share.”

– Rosemary McClure


Skyler Phamle ’18 | psychology & social behavior

Graduate student

Skyler Phamle knows a conversation can transform a life. When she was an overwhelmed first-generation student at a community college, a counselor convinced her not only that she could complete her associate degree there, but that she should then transfer to a major university. Now she wants to do the same for others.

Phamle, 25, graduated summa cum laude from UCI on a bright Friday this past June. The next Monday, she began work at three Santa Ana schools, mentoring low-income fourth- through sixth-graders interested in science and math. As soon as her summer jobs ended, she began her graduate studies at Cal State Long Beach, seeking a master’s degree focused on higher education counseling and student affairs.

It’s all part of an amazing odyssey for Phamle, who both learned English and earned her bachelor’s degree within four years of arriving in the U.S. from Vietnam. She’s driven by her family’s experiences to help those with similar backgrounds.

As children, Phamle and her older brother saw photos of their aunts and uncles tucked in a special corner of their home. But they never heard too much about them. “Every time my mother would start to talk about it, she would cry,” Phamle remembers.

Steve Zylius / UCI

Pieces of the tragic history slipped out. After Saigon fell in the 1970s, her mom’s older brothers and sisters took turns trying to escape to the U.S. on perilous boat journeys. They were never heard from again, their bodies presumed lost at sea.

When Phamle was 11, a note from France electrified the family. It was from an uncle who had survived. Phamle was sent by her mother to Paris on an exchange program for two weeks and decided she wanted to be a French professor. For seven years, as her parents saved money to bring themselves and their children to the U.S. by airplane, she studied French.

The family settled in Stanton. Phamle’s parents have struggled, currently earning about $2 an hour as “independent contractors” stuffing and addressing direct-mail envelopes. Her father didn’t know how to shop in grocery stores or respond to friendly bank tellers. They’ve stayed in north Orange County fairly near other Vietnamese immigrants. But her mother doesn’t drive.

“My mom uses the metaphor that she became mute and deaf when they came here. She can’t talk to anyone besides the rest of the family,” Phamle says.

She and her brother studied hard at Santa Ana College. But the culture threw her. A professor would joke about a TV show such as “Rugrats,” and everybody would laugh. She had no idea why.

“I understand the words, but I’m thinking, ‘What does that mean?’” Phamle recalls. “To some people it’s very minor, but to me it was a reality check.”

She met for several sessions with a guidance counselor, Jane Mathis, who encouraged the young student, and her confidence grew.


“I’ve been through the process, so I know how hard it is to go from a community college to a four-year university.”


“I had a really tough time at Santa Ana College, but I met this wonderful counselor, and she changed my life,” Phamle says. “So I decided, ‘I don’t think professor is the right profession for me anymore.’”

She transferred to UCI and immersed herself in a new major involving psychology and counseling. Faculty, staff and fellow students helped her win financial aid, provided letters of recommendation, and coached her on submitting applications for graduate studies and employment. She, in turn, took multiple jobs focused on helping others.

At the School of Education, Phamle aided researchers studying low-income digital learning. As a Pathways peer educator, she assisted fellow students with résumés, online professional profiles, fiscal aid workshops and healthcare benefits. For the International Student Excellence Programs, she organized bonding events for mentors and mentees. And she became a one-on-one counselor for Santa Ana College transfer students adjusting to UCI.

“I’ve been through the process, so I know how hard it is to go from a community college to a four-year university, how big things are and how fast the quarter system is,” Phamle says.

She shared tips on good professors and avoiding schedules laden with reading-intensive classes. Most importantly, she listened.

Moving forward, she wants to make sure her parents are comfortable financially and then, someday, start her own counseling resource center for college students from other countries.

Says Phamle: “A lot of my ambitions come from ‘What can I do for you?’”

– Janet Wilson


Eloy Ortiz Oakley ’96 | environmental analysis & design, MBA ’99

Chancellor, California Community Colleges

The first time Eloy Ortiz Oakley was invited to speak at the White House, he felt like a tourist. It was 2010, and Oakley was then president of the Long Beach Community College District, one of the most diverse two-year college districts in the nation.

But in the company of President Barack Obama and senior officials, Oakley – who was invited along with the superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District and the president of Cal State Long Beach – questioned his importance. He didn’t sleep much on that trip.

“It wasn’t until the second or third time we went back that I started to feel like maybe we do belong and maybe we are making a difference,” he recalls.

Oakley, who earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA at UCI, is currently the first Latino to lead the largest community college system in the U.S. (California Community Colleges serves 2.1 million students at 114 campuses.) Now 53, he accepted the job as chancellor in 2016, with an eye toward expanding on his lifelong mission to move greater numbers of underrepresented students through postsecondary education.

It was early success in that goal that put Oakley on Obama’s radar. The Long Beach College Promise, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, forged an agreement between high school and college administrators for a more organized pipeline from high school to college. The Obama administration “started using this as an example of a community serving a population that some people felt couldn’t succeed in higher education,” Oakley says. “If it could be done in Long Beach, it could be done across the country.”

The White House invitation surprised him at first, but ultimately renewed his sense of mission. He’s always viewed himself among the young people floundering in a complex and impersonal public education system. It was a good reminder.

Courtesy of Long Beach City College

Oakley grew up in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of Southeast Los Angeles, a poverty-stricken area marked by ubiquitous scenes of violence and drug use. His father supported the family by working at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard; his mother was a Mexican immigrant and homemaker who worked odd jobs to support the family. Oakley credits his parents with instilling in him a strong work ethic, though the idea of attending college wasn’t “within my framework of thinking,” he says.

He was offered a two-year football scholarship at Pitzer College, in Claremont, after graduating from his Catholic high school. But he declined to enroll because he didn’t understand how he could afford to pay for the entire four years of education. Instead, six months later, at age 18, with an infant daughter, Oakley enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served for four years.


“Because UCI reached out, making me feel valued and wanted, it made my decision easy. That made all the difference in the world.”


Once out of the military, he found himself raising his daughter with his partner in a “children-raising-children scenario,” Oakley says. The young family moved in and out of apartments, eventually settling in Irvine. His job prospects were “going nowhere.”

But Oakley says his Army service taught him that he could accomplish things, and on the advice of military colleagues, he enrolled at Golden West College, in Huntington Beach, before transferring to UCI in 1994. Oakley considers the campus “a savior” because it was the only UC that approached him as a transfer student.

“Because UCI reached out, making me feel valued and wanted, it made my decision easy,” he says. “That made all the difference in the world.”

The university assisted Oakley in applying Veterans Educational Assistance Program benefits to help pay for college. He also took advantage of a student family housing unit, which he says was “vital” in allowing him to attend school full time while raising a family.

After graduation, Oakley would go on to hold several jobs, including that of vice president of college services at Oxnard College, and in 2002, he joined the Long Beach Community College District. He became its president in 2007. After nearly a decade in that role, Oakley was unanimously appointed chancellor of California Community Colleges. (He has also served as a University of California regent since 2014.)

Among multiple lofty goals for his tenure, Oakley hopes to reduce racial achievement gaps in community colleges by 40 percent over the next five years and eliminate them completely within 10 years. To get there, he is focused on filling key administrative positions with “people who actually have experience or can directly relate to the experiences of our students,” he notes.

Like Oakley, 40 percent of California’s community college students are the first in their families to attend college. His overarching aim is to help young people who grow up as he did – feeling that higher education is out of reach.

“You know,” Oakley says, “somebody believed in me.”

– Allen Young


Vy M. Dong ’98 | chemistry

UCI professor of chemistry

In Vy M. Dong’s chemistry lab, everyone is part of the family.

“We have undergrads all the way up to postdoctoral fellows, many living far from home,” she says, adding that one student has a 5-year-old daughter in China and several others hail from equally distant places. “They left everything behind to come to UCI. Many are making big sacrifices to pursue their dreams, so I try to make it as much a family as I can.”

Family is important to Dong, 42, a Texas-born Vietnamese American molecular chemistry dynamo whose parents fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, eventually settling in Orange County. Multiple generations of relatives still live nearby.

Her parents worked hard – her father as a machinist and her mother as a manicurist – to support their four children. Dong became the first in the family to graduate from college. A merit-based Regents’ Scholarship was “a driving force” in her decision to attend UCI, as it lessened the tuition burden on her parents.

Steve Zylius / UCI

She majored in chemistry, completed an honor’s project with Distinguished Professor Larry Overman – who calls her one of his brightest undergrads ever – and graduated magna cum laude in 1998. (A sister and brother later followed in her footsteps, also receiving UCI degrees.)

Dong moved on to UC Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees, respectively, before beginning a teaching career at the University of Toronto. After six years in Canada, she returned to the U.S. in 2012 as a full professor at UCI. Her entire team of eight Ph.D. and postdoctoral students, who focus on synthetic organic chemistry, relocated with her.

She is especially appreciative of being able to mentor students at UCI who face income and cultural challenges while seeking an education.

“Teaching is a very fulfilling part of my job,” Dong says, noting that her background makes it easy for her to connect with minority undergrads and serve as a role model.

“I tend to tell lots of stories about setbacks I had as a student,” she says. “I tell them it’s OK to flunk a class and take it again. I’m trying to help my students get to the top – to succeed in getting their dream jobs.”

Her focus on making the classroom a second home for students is evident in activities such as birthday parties, brunches, barbecues and special celebrations.

One of those took place this summer when Faben Cruz was surrounded by fellow lab members armed with water guns. He was dripping wet and laughing. So were they. Someone broke out a bottle of champagne and plastic flutes and poured a round. Cruz, a postgrad, was being honored by colleagues because an article he wrote had been accepted by the Journal of the American Chemical Society. It was a last hurrah of sorts for Cruz, who completed his Ph.D. in June and accepted a job at Merck Research Laboratories in San Francisco.


“I tend to tell lots of stories about setbacks I had as a student… I’m trying to help my students get to the top – to succeed in getting their dream jobs.”


His accomplishment is a point of pride for Dong. “I really hoped that when I came back, I’d be able to help train students for future careers,” she says, noting that those hopes have been realized. “It’s been a great experience.”

This year’s crop of grads, which included Cruz, makes her particularly happy. Several have found unanticipated success in their chosen field, publishing in academic journals and being offered excellent long-range career options.

“Two went to top-notch corporate positions; two others are on impressive academic tracks,” Dong says enthusiastically. “I’m so proud of them.”

The year has been a good one for her too. She received a UCI Lauds & Laurels Distinguished Alumni Award in May, recognizing the distinction her professional achievements have brought to the School of Physical Sciences.

Personally, Dong’s life has changed immeasurably since her first days on the UCI campus more than two decades ago. She met her future husband, Wilmer Alkhas, when she was a sophomore in Overman’s class. He is now her lab manager, and they have a 2-year-old son, Liam, who contributes to lab’s family ambiance.

Dong and her team specialize in catalysis, or the speeding up of chemical reactions at the molecular level. “My group focuses on new ways of making bonds,” she says, culminating in new pharmaceuticals and biological agents.

“In an academic lab, we have two kinds of products. One is the research, and we really hope to make an impact on society that way,” Dong says. “The other major product is the people we are training, and we hope that they will go on to do even better and greater things than we’ve done.”

– Rosemary McClure


Lydia Natoolo ’18 | biological sciences

2017-18 ASUCI president

In the dynamic life of Lydia Natoolo – one that has taken her from rural Uganda to UCI, from weathering homelessness to making valedictorian speeches, from dilapidated classrooms to medical school – two things have remained constant: struggle, and a community that makes it all worthwhile.

Natoolo, 37, was born in a village called Lusaze, the youngest of 28 siblings. Her mother and father – a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and an Oxford-educated lawyer, respectively – always encouraged her to pursue education, but their circumstances made it difficult. Like many in their community, the large family – most of whom lived together in the same house – often went without food and didn’t have running water or electricity, but still, Natoolo walked several miles to school every day that she could.

Throughout her childhood, she watched friends, neighbors and siblings fall ill and die of preventable illnesses. When she asked her mother why such tragedies struck, she was told that their village lacked the necessary medical facilities and physicians.

“As a little girl growing up with deficiencies all around me, I imagined myself becoming a doctor one day,” Natoolo says. But she couldn’t easily further her education in her home country, since there were no affordable medical schools available to her there. She would have to go abroad before she could truly make the difference she envisioned.

Courtesy of Lydia Natoolo

“About 20 years ago, a mighty door opened ahead of me to come to America, with not a dollar to my name but with a big dream,” Natoolo says. As a teenager, she followed an older sister who had moved to Boston, knowing that a U.S. education would provide her the best chance of fulfilling her medical aspirations. However, her plans were soon derailed.

“I decided to enroll at Northeastern University with no knowledge of how the system worked, especially as an immigrant,” she says. “I found myself dropping out of the university as I was ineligible for financial aid, and even with a job, I couldn’t afford to pay for my own tuition.”

Natoolo then relocated to Los Angeles and – over a decade of homelessness, homesickness and instability – worked and attended a series of community colleges. She later moved to Orange County and graduated from Saddleback College in 2015 as valedictorian, transferring soon after to UCI as a biological sciences major, with a minor in political science.

“I established myself in this great country in which you can achieve the American dream only if you do not let anything or anyone make you give up,” she says. “With many struggles, pain, loss and a lot of failure, I decided to create my own dream – the one I wanted to spend sleepless nights on and wake up to every day.”


“UCI has afforded me an opportunity not only to accomplish my education, but also to serve my family in addition to local and global communities. That is what the American dream is all about.”


Natoolo brought her passions for medicine and community health advocacy to UCI, getting involved in student government and countless global service projects. In her final academic year, she was president of the Associated Students of UCI, an ambassador for the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, and the recipient of the UCI Dalai Lama Scholarship, which funded an initiative Natoolo led that taught textile skills to HIV-positive Ugandan mothers.

Throughout her undergraduate years, she also raised more than $20,000 for a U.S.-based nonprofit she founded in 2014. Love a Community brings running water, electricity, food and other supplies to Atutur Hospital in eastern Uganda, which serves over 250,000 people. Her organization has helped dramatically cut the facility’s mortality rate. The nonprofit also launched a farming project to grow crops and raise animals to provide food for the patients and the surrounding area, which could eventually generate revenue for the hospital. This year, she hopes to equip the hospital with solar panels.

Natoolo’s community has stood behind her the whole way. She calls her mother every night before going to bed and relies on family and friends, from Irvine to Africa, to encourage her as she moves forward in her education.

Since graduating from UCI this June, Natoolo has been applying to medical schools in pursuit of her childhood dream: to become a doctor and political advocate who can “change the current medical policies in Africa, making them sustainable and effective.”

“UCI has afforded me an opportunity not only to accomplish my education, but also to serve my family in addition to local and global communities,” she says. “That is what the American dream is all about.”

“I am not at the finish line yet, as I need to finally become Dr. Natoolo,” she adds. But reflecting on her journey so far – and the village of support behind her – she feels well on her way.

– Megan Cole

 

Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.