“Having amazing directors, coordinators and mentors there to help you define your goals, your passions, your strengths and your weaknesses is something that greatly helps in accentuating your vision and relieving some stress,” says first-generation UCI student Perla Cermeno-Molina (left), here with fellow SAGE ambassador Aileen Guzman. Steve Zylius / UCI

According to Neda Moayedi, director of the Student Achievement Guided by Experience Scholars Program, it’s not just a tagline that UCI is doing the most for the American dream. “It’s a lived mission,” she says. “We don’t just say it; we’re really doing it.”

Founded in 1999 by the University of California Office of the President to strengthen the pipeline of talented and diverse students entering the workforce, SAGE Scholars provides eligible low-income undergraduates with the tools to invest in their future through leadership training, career and graduate school planning, and access to internship and scholarship opportunities.

The two-year program requires students to take two classes: a winter course their first year in which they learn about resumes, cover letters, portfolios and interviewing skills; and a fall class their second year that focuses on such interpersonal skills as communication and leadership. In addition, it includes individualized counseling, a variety of workshops and student-led service projects. Participants are strongly encouraged to complete internships with local nonprofits and corporations that partner with the program.

Moayedi’s family emigrated from Iran to Vienna and then, when she was 8, to the U.S., settling in Irvine. They struggled financially, and Moayedi earned her high school equivalency at 15 and began working full time to ease the burden. She helped put her older brother through college and then, well into her 20s, went back to school herself. She arrived at UCI in 2008 as a first-generation transfer student, feeling lost and alienated.

She was eligible to join SAGE Scholars but didn’t find out about it until it was too late to apply. Nevertheless, the director of the program allowed her to participate in a few of the classes. “I succeeded at UCI because mentors saw me, said ‘Let me help you,’ and I was able to figure out the system,” Moayedi says.

She majored in psychology & social behavior, but an internship at UCI’s career center made her realize that was what she wanted to do. She graduated in 2011. Four years later – during which she earned a master’s degree in leadership studies/higher education leadership – Moayedi was hired as a graduate career counselor in the same UCI office where she had interned. Two months ago, she became head of the SAGE Scholars Program that she had benefited from several years earlier.

“We are committed to supporting and empowering students from all backgrounds to reach their potential,” Moayedi says. “I encourage them to own their story, to look back and reflect on their journey, to remember how many obstacles they have overcome along the way. It’s through this process they realize their resilience and ability to be solution-focused as they transcend the adversities.”

SAGE also provides opportunities to gain leadership roles within the program. SAGE ambassadors are students who serve as an executive board and mentor others.

Nursing science major Maritza Acuna is a second-year SAGE ambassador. This past summer, the program guided her to an internship at medical device maker Edwards Lifesciences, which deepened her commitment to a career in healthcare, she says.

As the first in her family to go to college and a transfer student, Acuna was used to seeking out resources on her own – from how to prepare for higher education to how to get on the path to nursing school. Now SAGE is paving the way for her.

“SAGE made me more educated on graduate school. I feel that I am more knowledgeable on the process and what it is,” she says. “It has helped me find and be eligible for scholarships, which is something I heavily rely on to pay for school. SAGE has made my time at UCI more bearable and enjoyable.”

Like Acuna, Perla Cermeno-Molina is also a first-generation university student and a SAGE ambassador. A fourth-year criminology, law & society and psychology & social behavior major, she aspires to attend law school. Passionate about reforming the justice system, Cermeno-Molina was inspired by mentors she met through the program, mostly SAGE alumni, including law students, defense attorneys, paralegals and Ph.D. candidates. She also credits the quarterly service projects – which opened her eyes to the needs of various communities – for the humanitarian aspect of her goals.

“SAGE provided mentorship and guidance whenever I felt lost in what I needed or wanted to do,” Cermeno-Molina says. “Having amazing directors, coordinators and mentors there to help you define your goals, your passions, your strengths and your weaknesses is something that greatly helps in accentuating your vision and relieving some stress.”