Shawna Jackson
“I am very proud that I’ll be the first one in my family to hold a bachelor’s degree,” says fourth-year drama major Shawna Jackson. “Without the scholarship, I don’t think it would have been possible, considering that I’m working to put myself through college.” Steve Zylius / UCI

As a softball player, Shawna Jackson has played the field for most of her life. Hailing from a sports-loving family, she took to the diamond as soon as she could hold a bat.

It wasn’t until Jackson discovered an unexpected love of theater that she decided to trade in her bat for the Bard.

“From a young age, I’ve always been intrigued with the arts, despite the types of hobbies I was participating in. For the longest time, I wanted to be an actress or singer,” says the fourth-year drama major at UCI.

Growing up in Petaluma, Jackson spent weekends traveling from league to league to compete in softball tournaments. Once in high school, she had the liberty to explore her latent passion; she joined musical theater and adored it. Soon, Jackson began working to catch up on years’ worth of dance and voice lessons that her counterparts had been enrolled in since childhood.

After graduation, she moved on to Santa Rosa Junior College, where she performed in numerous shows at its renowned Summer Repertory Theatre. Jackson says that portraying Carla in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” was her favorite learning experience, as it was her “biggest role in a large-scale production and an incredible opportunity” for her to grow as an artist.

“From not dancing a step until I was 19 to having my ballet teacher move me up a [performance] level was an affirmation of the hard work I’d been putting in,” she says.

While at Santa Rosa, Jackson learned about UCI’s Claire Trevor School of Arts from a friend who happened to be a UCI alum and had great things to say about the university – and its theater program. She excitedly applied to UCI, was accepted and transferred in the fall of 2018.

First-generation success

Like nearly half of all UCI undergraduates, Jackson is the first in her family to attend college, and she’s supporting herself financially as she studies drama at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

“Neither of my parents had the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree,” she says. “Higher education was never something that was pushed in my house. But I still knew the value of it and have always yearned for knowledge. And I was always intrigued by the arts.”

Last year, Jackson received UCI’s Edna Helen Beach Scholarship, which provides up to $3,000 to incoming transfer students. Recipients are gifted men and women in the arts from underprivileged backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to attend a university.

“I am very proud that I’ll be the first one in my family to hold a bachelor’s degree. Without the scholarship, I don’t think it would have been possible, considering that I’m working to put myself through college,” Jackson says.

She’s one of many grateful UCI students to have benefited from philanthropic support. The awards partly cover university expenses and enable recipients to engage in activities outside the classroom that enrich their college experience and increase their success after graduating. UCI offers nearly 1,000 scholarships funded by generous donors, giving students more than $4 million in academic aid.

“Shawna is remarkable in her ability to focus, trust her instincts, and apply experience to tasks and difficulties in creative and unusual ways,” says her mentor, Anthony Kubiak, UCI professor of drama. “She is relentlessly positive and has learned not to let difficulties and obstacles define her.”

Jackson hopes one day to be able to make a living wage as a performer – whether in children’s theater, commercials or musical theater. She says that if she can support herself as an artist, she’ll be more than content.

“Through the education UCI’s drama department has provided, I know what lies in store for me in the professional world and the many different modalities there are for participating in performing arts, as well as how to create my own,” Jackson says.

“It helped me cultivate a stronger understanding of the world and the many opportunities out there. I simply have to choose a path and use the tools I have acquired. I’ll always be a student of life and never stop learning beyond my time at UCI.”

Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The Claire Trevor School of the Arts plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting