The epiphany came on a battered soccer field outside downtown Los Angeles. Edson Orozco’s father – who had never attended high school and worked a low-skill, graveyard-shift job – was once again unable to attend his son’s game.

“He always had to sleep during the day,” Orozco explains. “I told myself I didn’t want to end up like that, rarely seeing my children. So I decided I would become the first person in my family to go to college.”

But the Boyle Heights native had no idea what it took to get there. And his cash-strapped high school offered few resources. “In my neighborhood,” he says, “most people either drop out or maybe go to community college.”

Orozco muddled along until his school was visited by College Track, a nonprofit that guides low-income teens toward four-year universities. College Track pushed Orozco to aim higher, providing SAT prep classes and a tour of UCI, which later offered him a full scholarship.

Today, as a UCI junior majoring in business economics and international studies, Orozco aspires to work on Wall Street and earn enough to pull his parents and younger siblings out of poverty.

He chose a proven launching pad. In recent years, UCI has garnered national attention for its ability to catapult disadvantaged students into the upper middle class.

The list of metamorphoses includes the district attorney of Los Angeles County, the owner of Oakland’s NBA champion Golden State Warriors and countless inventors, artists, CEOs and professionals.

In 2017, The New York Times ranked UCI best in the nation at helping low- and middle-income students achieve the American dream.

What’s the school’s formula? It turns out to be a combination of ingredients, including a dash of geography, an unusual campus ambience and a former teenage magician. But the central element is a collection of trailblazing support programs.

“When I went to college in the 1970s, nobody reached out to first-generation college students. You either succeeded or didn’t, and the university would be fine either way,” says UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “Today we’re trying to be less laissez-faire. If we invite you to come here, let’s make it a partnership.”

It Begins With Outreach

The real estate credo “location, location, location” has a college corollary. Part of UCI’s success in attracting and graduating first-generation, low-income and other underrepresented students stems from geography, says Ryan Cherland, an assistant vice chancellor who crunches numbers for the school’s Office of Institutional Research.

Being planted in the midst of burgeoning Latino and Asian immigrant communities – as well as a flourishing job market – helps explain why the campus draws more freshman applications from Hispanic and Asian students than any other University of California campus, he says. (UCI also receives more African American freshman applications than any other UC except UCLA.)

Nevertheless, location only gets you so far, Gillman notes: “To take advantage of that geography, you have to do a lot of groundwork.”

Among other things, Anteater officials have spent decades cultivating relationships with local high schools and community colleges that historically have sent few pupils to major research universities. In 1983, UCI teamed with Cal State Fullerton and Santa Ana College to form the Santa Ana Partnership, which dramatically boosted college readiness and application rates among Santa Ana Unified high school students. The program served as a model for other UC campuses.

“Higher education institutions have an obligation to reach out to overlooked communities and create a pipeline for them to attend,” Gillman says.

The efforts are paying off. Between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of Hispanic undergrads at UCI doubled to more than a quarter of the student body. In 2017, the campus became just the second member of the elite Association of American Universities to be labeled a Hispanic-serving institution, meaning that at least 25 percent of its undergrads identify as Latino and at least half of all students receive financial aid. The designation makes UCI eligible for federal grants designed to aid first-generation and low-income students.

“Historically, many Hispanics felt they would best be served by community colleges and Cal States,” Gillman says. “We’re trying to let them know that our doors are also wide open and they can thrive here.”

Layers of Support

Other overlooked groups that UCI is focusing on include military veterans and low-income and first-generation students. Getting them to enroll is one thing. Making sure they graduate is another.

Nationwide, just 49 percent of Pell Grant recipients (who typically hail from low-income families) earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. At UCI, in contrast, the graduation rate is 85 percent. The campus also leads the country’s top schools
in Pell enrollment, with 42 percent of undergrads receiving the aid, according to The New York Times’ College Access Index and UC data. That means UCI welcomes more Pell Grant students than the entire Ivy League combined.

“We have embraced the idea that you can support students who don’t have traditional backgrounds,” says Michael Dennin, a physics & astronomy professor who serves as vice provost for teaching and learning, as well as dean of UCI’s Division of Undergraduate Education. “No matter what your background is, you’ll feel at home here.”

In line with that philosophy, UCI has set up a multitude of support programs to help various constituencies navigate their way into and through the university.

For instance, UCI pioneered guaranteed campus housing for former members of the armed services and their families. Other vet-friendly enticements include priority class registration, scholarships for those who have exhausted their GI Bill benefits, workshops and job conferences. For 2019, U.S. News & World Report ranked UCI the 13th-best university for veterans, up from 32nd three years ago.

“UCI sets the standard with a professional staff that provides the support necessary for veterans to succeed,” says Adrian Marquez, a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant majoring in materials science engineering.

“No matter what your background is, you’ll feel at home here.”

One of UCI’s longest-running outreach efforts – the Summer Scholars Transfer Institute, created in 1993 – invites 120 community college students per year to live and study on campus for 10 days, at no cost. The immersion experience aims to give potential transfer students “a sense that they do belong here, that a four-year university is reachable,” says Santana Ruiz, deputy director of UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships.

Another signature program, the First Generation Faculty Initiative, which debuted in 2015 and quickly spread throughout the UC system, targets the roughly 50 percent of UCI  undergrads who are the first in their families to attend college. Bolstered by a social media campaign, it offers mentorship and encouragement from professors who themselves are first-generation college graduates.

Orozco is active in UCI’s Decade Plus, which pairs first-gen arrivals with older peers and grad students who coach them on juggling finances, managing stress and applying for study abroad programs, among other subjects.

In a similar vein, Irvine was the first UC campus to establish a specialized class to guide undeclared freshmen, who are mostly Latino and account for nearly one in five new Anteaters, says Kimberly Ayala, director of UCI’s Undergraduate/Undeclared Advising Program. The course covers such topics as time management, tutoring resources and research opportunities. UCI also has dorms dedicated to first-year students who haven’t chosen a major. There, residents gain access to additional academic support and participate in a group philanthropy project.

“Not everyone is psychologically prepared at age 18 to know what they need,” Gillman says. “But with a little extra attention, they’re primed to succeed.”

Ayala’s office also assists students who do have majors but fail a prerequisite or find themselves struggling academically. “We suggest backup plans and will even call other departments on a student’s behalf,” she says. For instance, if a pre-med student doesn’t pass organic chemistry, counselors might recommend switching to a related field, such as public health, pharmacology or nursing.

UCI’s skill at “redirecting” unmoored students is essential to keeping dropout rates low , Cherland says.

An additional factor that reduces attrition is UCI’s surprising small-college vibe. Despite an enrollment of nearly 36,000, the university feels tinier and more intimate, partly because UCI is divided into 15 separate schools instead of the five or six found at many other UC campuses, Cherland says. “We’re an odd duck,” he adds, but that makes it easier to deliver more individualized attention.

“When I went to college in the 1970s, nobody reached out to first-generation college students. You either succeeded or didn’t, and the university would be fine either way. Today we’re trying to be less laissez-faire. If we invite you to come here, let’s make it a partnership.”

Leveling the Economic Playing Field

Why does socioeconomic diversity matter on college campuses? Because without it, the strength of America’s workforce and economy will falter, Gillman says. “Right now, too many of the nation’s elite universities enroll more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the bottom 60 percent, a situation that widens the gulf between rich and poor and ultimately damages overall prosperity,” he says.

UCI and its sister UC campuses are striving to counteract that trend, creating thousands of modern-day Horatio Alger stories. Across the entire University of California system, a third of low-income students jump from the least affluent 20 percent of the population to the most affluent 20 percent within five years of graduating.

UCI has been exceptionally effective in the upward economic mobility department. In August, Money magazine rated the campus No. 3 on its list of the “50 best colleges in the U.S.,” in part because of alumni career success.

Post-grad earnings also figured into Forbes magazine ranking UCI fourth in the nation for delivering “the best bang for the tuition buck,” ahead of Harvard, Stanford and Princeton universities. The April report also placed UCI second in the U.S. at vaulting low-income students up the salary ladder.

And in 2015 and 2017, The New York Times ranked UCI the nation’s No. 1 American dream machine, trailed closely
by several other UC campuses, for its commitment to socioeconomic diversity. Gillman says he wouldn’t be upset if a sister school someday overtook UCI. “It’s less important that we stay No. 1 than make the point that there’s something about the UC system as a whole that is distinctly admirable within American higher education,” he says.

Not that he intends to let UCI rest on its laurels.

“We have to continue to make economic diversity a strategic priority,” the chancellor says, noting that the campus is investing in “sophisticated analytics” to track the changing needs of each new class so that officials can figure out the best ways to assist the various groups within each cohort.

For instance, low-income students whose parents both work may have to pick up younger siblings from school each day and, therefore, would benefit from the flexibility of more online classes, he says.

Taking Things Personally

One of the unsung factors driving UCI’s efforts is personal experience. The First Generation Faculty Initiative was born out of associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies Anita Casavantes Bradford’s own feelings of isolation and exhaustion as a first-gen undergrad. Encouragement from a professor put graduate school on her radar.

Gillman too can relate firsthand to the struggles of working-class and first-generation Anteaters. The son of a construction worker dad and school clerk-typist mom, he grew up in a 900-square-foot home in North Hollywood, beneath buzzing power lines, earning money as a magician, undercover Sears security officer and country radio station DJ to help his family stay afloat and put himself through UCLA.

That past underlies Gillman’s passion for empowering disadvantaged students at UCI.

“It’s a mission that is personally meaningful to me,” he says. “My life was transformed and enlarged by the chance to study at a great university. Bringing that to people of all backgrounds – helping them to see the world and expand their vision of what’s possible – is the biggest gift you can give someone.”

For Orozco, that vision – once clouded by obstacles – is now in focus. “I’m loving the experience,” he says. “Each day, I’m a little bit closer to my dream.”

Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.