UCI News

Making ‘First Choice’ Possible

by Greg Hardesty │ UCI Magazine | October 4, 2019
Making ‘First Choice’ Possible

UCI achieved a first last fall when it received more freshman applications from California residents (some 72,000) than any other college in the state. And it was third in the nation for total applicants when transfer students and those living out of state were added to the mix.

Just this August, UCI became the first public university to be named No. 1 in Money magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s “Best Colleges.” The accolade acknowledges UCI’s continued growth in providing accessible, high quality education and fostering alumni success. And twice in recent years, UCI has topped The New York Times’ College Access Index of U.S. universities best enabling students to achieve the American dream, based in part on the number of low- and middle-income students they enroll and the price they’re charged.

Fulfilling the dream of a world-class university degree, however, often requires the assistance of scholarships – not just those awarded by the university or the government, but scholarships provided by a philanthropist, company or foundation.

Despite being one of the most sought-after college destinations in the country, UCI – compared to other UC campuses – trails in dollars raised for scholarships from donors. UCI competes with private colleges and universities across the U.S. for the most talented students, who, while they list UCI as their No. 1 choice, may not be able to afford to turn down a large scholarship offered by another institution.

As part of UCI’s new Brilliant Future campaign, the university hopes to increase the amount of philanthropic funding available to help outstanding prospective students make UCI their home.

“We want to fulfill our mission of educating California’s best and brightest, regardless of their economic circumstances or background, by significantly expanding our scholarship resources,” says Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Enrique J. Lavernia. “We want to make ‘first choice’ possible.”

What follows are the stories of four UCI scholarship recipients – from a military veteran on his way to reentering the workforce to the daughter of immigrants from Africa who is studying U.S. infant mortality rates – all of whom agree that no matter the level of financial assistance, it was critical to their academic journeys in pursuit of their own American dreams.

Emily Nicole Barragan

Emily Nicole Barragan

Junior, Chemical Engineering
Reward Opportunity Advancing Distinguished Students Scholarship

When she was a young girl growing up in the Chino/Ontario area, Emily Barragan would pester her mother to buy her a toy microscope.

“I was around 8 or 9,” says Barragan, whose parents separated when she was young and who was raised by hermother, who is from Mexico. “We would be at Toys R Us, and I would see a little toy microscope. I just thought it was so cool. I was like: ‘I want to do that. I want to look at insects, leaves, hair – everything.’”

That microscope sparked in Barragan a lifelong curiosity about all things scientific, as well as math. Today, she’s a third-year chemical engineering major with plans for a career dedicated to ensuring a healthy planet for future generations.

A sticker on her stainless steel water bottle spells it out clearly: “Engineers for a Sustainable World.” Her passion for the environment explains, in part, why Barragan, 20, was the recipient this past academic year of a Reward Opportunity Advancing Distinguished Students Scholarship.

The ROADS Scholarship assists outstanding UCI students, particularly those who are currently or have been recently involved in green projects or initiatives on or off campus.

“It covered food and random lab fees that my financial aid didn’t pay for,” says Barragan, an avid vegetarian for most of her life and a vegan for the last two years. “Knowing that I didn’t really have to worry too much about paying for food or begging my parents for money gave me a sense of independence.”

She says the scholarship has also helped her live in an apartment close to campus, which allows her to remain involved in extracurricular activities. “By not having to take out loans for housing,” Barragan adds, “the likelihood that I’ll be able to afford graduate school has increased.”

At UCI, she’s a board member of the campus chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World and an “Earth rep” for Student Housing. During spring break last year, she joined 13 other students to conduct sustainability research in Costa Rica.

“We studied soil health in various forests based on different agricultural techniques that were being used,” Barragan says.

Her interest in improving the environment began back in high school. While learning Mandarin at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills, she and some classmates took a cultural immersion trip to China, where she was alarmed by the high level of pollution.

“After having to wear surgical masks in certain regions to avoid lung damage, I knew there needed to be a revolutionary change in how we obtain our energy,” Barragan recalls. “I decided to become a chemical engineer and dedicate my education toward cultivating sustainable processes for our society. I believe that we, the human race, bear full responsibility for ensuring that future generations of living organisms have a healthy planet to dwell in.”


“I believe that we, the human race, bear full responsibility for ensuring that future generations of living organisms have a healthy planet to dwell in.”


A gifted student throughout elementary, junior and high school – and on the Dean’s Honor List at UCI – Barragan is spending a chunk of this summer working with Shane Ardo, assistant professor of chemistry.

“I’m conducting research,” she says. I’m getting a stipend for helping create a small-scale, thermally powered water desalination unit. I was just reading a story about how India needs small-scale power devices for clean water, and that’s exactly what I’m doing!”

STEM-related smarts run in Barragan’s family. Her older brother, Seth, is studying biomedical engineering at UC San Diego. His first choice of colleges had been UCI, and he was the one who encouraged Barragan to apply. She was also attracted to UCI because of its reputation as one of the greenest universities in the nation.

Barragan loves the practical aspects of engineering and plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. She has an interest in solid oxide fuel cells, or hydrogen fuel cells, and their application as an alternative to fossil fuels in powering vehicles.

“Hydrogen fuel cells exist now but aren’t being used on a commercial basis because they’re deemed not as efficient or reliable as traditional fossil fuel motors in terms of mass marketing,” Barragan says. “I want to help make them a bit more efficient through the possible use of different materials.”

Bridgette Blebu, Ph.D. ’19

Bridgette Blebu, Ph.D. ’19

Public Health
Chancellor’s Club Fellowship

As Bridgette Blebu can attest, the last year of a Ph.D. program can be pretty crazy. The 31-year-old completed a doctorate in public health this spring. Her dissertation focused on neighborhood social context and prematurity among infants born to black immigrants in California.

Blebu says her fifth year was a little easier thanks to a Chancellor’s Club Fellowship, which provided her with a $12,000 stipend over the final two quarters of her doctoral program. During the award period, her academic department covered tuition and fees.

“It helped in a lot of ways,” Blebu says of the fellowship, named for the group founded in 1972 by UCI Chancellor Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. Chancellor’s Club members – alumni, community residents, current and past parents, as well as faculty and staff – support first-generation undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships.

“The final year of your Ph.D. program can be really intense, because you’re trying to finish your dissertation but also preparing to go into the workforce,” Blebu says. “So your time is very split. It was nice not to have to be a teaching assistant on top of everything else. This fellowship allowed me to focus on my research.”

She found that upon their arrival, black immigrant women were less likely to have a premature infant than U.S.-born black women.

“It’s interesting, especially since the racial disparity in birth outcomes is so pervasive in the United States,” Blebu says. “But it wasn’t necessarily surprising because I grew up in a family that made deliberate decisions – including migrating to the United States – to better our social and economic standing. By default, our health kind of followed along.”

The daughter of immigrants from Ghana, in West Africa – her mother was a bank teller, and her father is a systems engineer – Blebu was born and lived in the San Fernando Valley before her family moved to Marin County when she was 9.

She initially went to the University of Southern California to become a pharmacist. “But I took a class that looked at population health and fell in love with it,” she says. “Just the idea of being able to understand trends at a population level intrigued me.”


“One of the things that appeals to me is to be a role model for other women of color,” Blebu says. “I want to help remove barriers for people like me in accessing academia.”


Blebu earned a bachelor’s degree in health promotion & disease prevention studies and a master’s degree in public health, with a concentration in biostatistics/epidemiology, at USC.

After spending a couple of years at a nonprofit in Los Angeles – where she studied the social determinants of health and tried to understand inequity in neighborhoods and health outcomes – Blebu came to UCI in the fall of 2014 to work with Annie Ro, an assistant professor of public health and a health demographer.

“Her research was really in line with what I was interested in exploring, and so I wanted to train under her,” Blebu says. “She ended up being my content mentor, and she really pushed me to think long-term and to develop questions that could serve as foundations for a career in academic research.”

Ro also taught Blebu how to navigate academia.

“It’s challenging, especially when you’re someone who thought that they were going to end up in industry or nonprofit research,” Blebu says. “So just having guidance along those lines was really helpful.”

She and five others were the first students to join the then-fledgling doctoral program in public health, which made it a particularly unique experience, Blebu says. While at UCI, she fostered inclusive campus experiences for graduate students through her role with the DECADE Student Council.

Since July, Blebu has been in a postdoctoral program in UC San Francisco’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences. She hopes to land a full-time professorship in two or three years.

“One of the things that appeals to me is to be a role model for other women of color,” Blebu says. “I want to help remove barriers for people like me in accessing academia.”

“When prospective graduate students go online and don’t see people who look like them or who are conducting research that resonates with them, they can be deterred from pursuing an advanced degree,” she adds. “For that reason, I think it’s important to continue on this journey of academia and to open doors for other students of color.”

Shaun Whitecavage

Shaun Whitecavage

Senior, Social Policy & Public Service and Public Health Policy
Brython P. Davis Scholarship

Initially, college wasn’t in the cards for Shaun Whitecavage. Now it’s his lifeline. Whitecavage was a decent student and athlete (football, wrestling, volleyball) at Foothill High School in Santa Ana. But coming from a broken home in which he largely was raised by his older brother and grandparents, Whitecavage – who lived in Moreno Valley before moving to Santa Ana when he was 10 – felt a little aimless when he graduated in 2003.

“I was kind of all over the place,” he says. “I didn’t really have structure.”

Now the discipline and determination he learned in the U.S. Marine Corps, which Whitecavage joined after high school, is paying off for the married father of two boys, ages 6 and 2.

Whitecavage, 35, is on track to earn two bachelor’s degrees – one in social policy & public service and one in public health policy – at UCI in spring 2020. He hopes to find a job as a social worker, or perhaps as a nurse or physical therapist.

He’s still mulling the possibilities.

“I always wanted to go into physical therapy or something related because I spent so much time [in physical therapy] after undergoing three surgeries,” Whitecavage says. “I’m looking at different options.”

Considering his life path and adapting to challenges are nothing new for Whitecavage.

A devastating knee injury during a rugby match ended his military career in 2014, when he was deemed medically unfit to reenlist after serving for 11 years as an expeditionary airfield systems technician and aircraft recovery specialist.

Whitecavage, who reached the rank of staff sergeant, had planned on making the Marine Corps a career, but his injury abruptly ended that notion.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Whitecavage and his Japanese wife, Naoko, whom he met while at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, had a son just under a year old. With money very tight, they moved into his father’s house in Moreno Valley.

“My wife wasn’t working, and after I got out of the military, I needed to find a way to be able to provide for my wife and kids,” Whitecavage says. “I came to the conclusion that going to college would be the best opportunity to do that.”

Whitecavage spent three years at Moreno Valley College, initially focusing on business classes, before transferring to UCI in fall 2017. “UCI was the only school I could find that had guaranteed housing for veterans,” Whitecavage says, noting what a huge help that is as he transitions into a new, post-military career.

He and his family live in a two-bedroom campus apartment. His wife is enrolled in the registered dental assisting program at Orange Coast College.

“I love it here,” Whitecavage says of UCI. “The campus is beautiful, and the students are nice – although most of them probably think I’m the teaching assistant when I initially enter the classroom.”


“After I got out of the military, I needed to find a way to be able to provide for my wife and kids,” Whitecavage says. “I came to the conclusion that going to college would be the best opportunity to do that.”


A private scholarship has helped pay the bills as the family gets by on Whitecavage’s veteran’s disability income and support from the GI Bill, which covers tuition and books and provides a housing stipend. This past academic year, Whitecavage received the Brython P. Davis Scholarship, reserved for applicants with a parent who served, or is serving, in the Navy or the Marine Corps. Whitecavage’s father, a retired deputy in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, was in the Marines, as was his grandfather.

“A [scholarship] of this level keeps me focused and driven and helps me stay the course,” Whitecavage wrote in a letter to Brython P. Davis Scholarship officials. “Thank you for aiding me in this journey to complete my education and allowing me to continue providing a positive role model for my sons to look up to.”

Whitecavage – a diehard Philadelphia Phillies baseball fan (his dad is from the City of Brotherly Love) who often wears a special-edition Memorial Day Phillies cap – no longer plays rugby. For now, academics remain his center of attention. He has also been involved in research projects and has held several internships, with hopes that all his hard work at UCI will distinguish him as he prepares to enter the job market.

“Being able to add a degree from a top university to the skills I already have from the military will help me stand out among my peers,” Whitecavage says.

He also advises others in his situation to use the GI Bill and to urge their veteran friends to use it as well: “It’s an awesome benefit that you earned, and not enough veterans utilize it.”

Gordon Wong

Gordon Wong

Junior, Psychological Science
Gordon E. Hein Scholarship

Gordon Wong walks around chairs outside Humanities Hall and grabs a spot at a table in the shade. He’s just another student killing some time on a recent summer day.

One thing about Wong stands out, though: He’s wearing a necktie for an interview about an internship in a research lab. Look a little closer, and something else stands out: Propped up against the table is a long, white cane that comes up to Wong’s nose – the ideal height to maximize his ability to navigate. “It allows me to move around quicker,” he says.

Wong, 21, isn’t completely blind. He can’t see faces but can make out shapes, especially when in contrast to light. He can’t see fingers but can recognize hand motions.

And he isn’t letting his disability prevent him from thriving as a psychological science major entering his third year this fall.

Born in Los Angeles, Wong moved with his family to Mission Viejo right before he started kindergarten. He began losing his eyesight when he was a senior at Mission Viejo High School, where he was among his class’s top 25 students and in the International Baccalaureate program.

There is, unfortunately, a genetic eye disease on his mother’s side: Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which tends to manifest in young adult males.

When he got the news he was going blind, Wong was too busy planning for college to let the diagnosis completely derail him. And he had strong role models: two cousins who also had Leber’s and were working on their master’s degrees.

“People always ask me what it was like losing my vision,” says Wong, who started at UCI in fall 2017. “I was just trying to graduate from high school and make sure I would be able to get into college. I didn’t really have time to worry about it.”

After accepting him as a freshman for fall 2016, UCI allowed Wong to delay his entry a year so he could undergo nine-month “adjustment training” at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, a residential facility that his cousins had attended. In Louisiana, Wong learned how to perform everyday tasks without his vision while also completing projects such as using power tools to build a chest in woodshop, cooking a meal for 40 people and creating a PowerPoint presentation.


“The medical model is that people with disabilities need to be fixed. The social model says that if you get people the right accommodations, they’ll be able to succeed.”


At UCI, Wong received a Gordon E. Hein Scholarship, which assists academically eligible students who are blind or have severe visual impairment.

“It basically paid my tuition the first year,” Wong says. “The second year was a little lower. It was a relief to not have to worry about money for the first two years.”

Thanks to advances in technology and support from UCI’s Disability Services Center, Wong and other sightless or low-vision students are able to flourish on campus pretty much on their own.

UCI’s Disability Services Center turns textbooks into documents that Wong can access on his laptop – which then converts them into audio files. The center also offers note takers, but Wong memorized his keyboard before losing his vision, so he takes his own notes in class. Some of Wong’s academic papers at UCI – where his current GPA is 3.89 – have examined how blindness is viewed in society and literature.

“We perceive it very negatively,” Wong says. “And blind people have negative views on the blind too. They don’t have high expectations for themselves. The medical model is that people with disabilities need to be fixed. The social model says that if you get people the right accommodations, they’ll be able to succeed.”

Wong’s father, Gary, a chemist, works in Irvine and is able to take him to and from UCI. But once here, Wong eschews the Ring Road golf-cart rides offered by the disability center, preferring to navigate the campus independently. He takes pride in the numerous shortcuts through Aldrich Park that he has learned. Off campus, Wong volunteers once a week at the Braille Institute in Anaheim to help others adjust as he has.

That volunteer service meshes perfectly with his longterm ambition. After graduation, Wong plans to earn a master’s degree and pursue a counseling career in a university-based rehabilitation program. He hopes to draw on his own experiences to show students with disabilities how to get “the most out of life,” he says.

Wong is looking forward to fresh challenges.

“Since I’ve already been doing this for two years now, the school part has gotten pretty easy,” he says. “The newer stuff, like doing job interviews, will be more difficult. It’s all about getting other people to believe that I can succeed.”