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Unique locally-developed programs in Merced and San Diego are working to ensure that access to a UC education starts within their communities.

UC’s academic campuses inhabit some of the most vibrant areas of California. But for the children who grow up in these college towns, a UC education may not necessarily seem within reach. Economic challenges, lack of knowledge about available educational and financial resources, and even cultural traditions can hinder students’ ability to pursue a university degree. At a systemwide level, UC has long supported educationally disadvantaged students through impactful initiatives like the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP); Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) and the Puente Project. UC Merced and UC San Diego have also developed local programs that bridge high schools and their campuses, supporting students from vulnerable populations in making a UC education a reality.

Building a culture of learning

UC Merced’s Gateway Scholarship Program was developed by necessity in more ways than one. In 2010, staff were thrilled when an anonymous donor offered to create a scholarship program to serve students from Merced High School who were going on to attend UC Merced. Unfortunately, this opportunity made one fact abundantly clear: Very few students from Merced High were attending UC Merced — or college at all.

In 2014, when Alex Delgadillo stepped into his position as associate director for educational equity and access at UC Merced’s Calvin E. Bright Success Center, he had an opportunity to meet with the donor’s representative. When asked why so few Merced High students went on to attend college, Delgadillo explained that Merced’s community did not have a college-going culture; that family education around college preparation and access needed to begin at the high-school — and ideally middle-school — level.

The donor representative asked if Delgadillo could propose some ways in which the university could address this cultural gap and, much to his and his colleagues’ surprise, after receiving these suggestions, the donor allocated a $750,000 grant to initiate them. Thanks to this grant, the Gateway Scholarship Program has expanded to include a dedicated professional staff member on-site at Merced High to support college preparation, as well as year-round programs for Merced High students. All Gateway events are held on campus, familiarizing participants with the college-going experience. Programs range from summer college-readiness academies for freshmen and sophomores to events officially welcoming seniors who will attend UC Merced onto campus. All Gateway scholars receive an $8,000 award; those who go on to attend UC Merced are eligible for an additional $16,000.

Delgadillo is quick to point out that Gateway students who attend UC Merced gain another valuable benefit — ongoing, personalized support throughout their tenure on campus. “We connect them with tutoring and financial assistance with their books. I monitor their academic progress and meet with them if they’re struggling.” UC Merced staff also connect students with peers on campus, such as undocumented student groups.

Getting in — and staying there

The one-two punch of financial aid and personalized support is mirrored by the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Associates Scholars Program (CASP). Created in 2013 by Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, CASP provides local, high-achieving students from underserved families with the opportunity to attend UC San Diego tuition-free and debt-free. The program primarily serves eligible students from high schools, community-based organizations and community colleges in San Diego County, but also includes students from other parts of California, as well as those from federally recognized tribes (acknowledging UC San Diego’s location on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay Nation). More than 70% of CASP recipients are first in their family to attend a university.

CASP’s year-round outreach efforts connect and engage with local high school partners, as well as community-based organizations like Reality Changers. In addition, CASP partners with the UC San Diego Intertribal Resource Center, which leads the university’s efforts to promote access and provide support to native students.

When paired with the UC Blue + Gold Opportunity Plan, CASP essentially provides a full scholarship for eligible students, covering tuition, on-campus housing, books and more. However, financial aid is only one component in ensuring students’ academic success. The program — which includes a summer transition program, leadership and communication seminars, graduate school advising, peer and faculty mentoring and other resources — builds community and offers academic and social support, leading to greater student retention.

“Participation in CASP has had an incredibly positive outcome on student graduation rates, especially in the first-to-second year retention rate, and as compared to peers in similar demographic categories,” says CASP Program Manager Belinda Zamacona. “This year, we had more than 291 new scholars, and since the program began, over 1,000 students have received the scholarship.

Seeing and meeting a community’s needs

“The local students we serve in Merced are incredibly diverse,” says Delgadillo. “They are almost all low-income, first-generation students. For about 75% of them, English is not their first language. There are many obstacles that they have to overcome. For example, you might think that because they live locally, it would be a smooth transition to come to college. But many of them are the eldest child and there can be a great deal of responsibility that comes along with that. If they are the only one in their family who speaks English, they might need to go along with their parents to doctor and social worker appointments; students who live in Section 8 housing might need to meet with the housing department. Their family may only have one vehicle; they may need to take several busses to get to campus when their parents are working.”

Part of the role of the Gateway Scholarship Program in these communities is to show families the potential their students have to earn a higher wage later in life by investing time and effort now.

CASP, too, has been thoughtfully tailored to understand and serve its population. “San Diego sits on native land, has military-affiliated bases and is also a border community,” Zamacona says. “All of these nuances mean that our students bring with them a rich set of experiences. To fully understand them, we have invested in cultivating relationships in the local educational community.”

These nuances are familiar to Zamacona, a native San Diegan herself. “My work in CASP is deeply personal. I attended elementary school, middle school and high school in North County San Diego, and if CASP were around when I was entering college, I would have been a CASP student. In fall 2019, my cousin became a CASP scholar, so when I say ‘CASP is family,’ I now literally mean it. CASP mirrors my cultural, economic, and educational background and experience I had, and I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to create a positive student-centered experience for our students.”

Both the Gateway Scholarship Program and CASP have been successful. In spring 2019, the Gateway Scholarship Program graduated its first class of students who participated in all four years — from ninth to 12th grade. Graduates of the program have gone on to attend college at Berkeley, Stanford, University of Colorado and — not least — 16 of whom will attend UC Merced. The program has opened a second location at Golden Valley High School. The CASP program, which started as a partnership with three San Diego high schools and an inaugural cohort of 43 scholars, has grown to include more than 800 freshman and transfer scholars.

“Programs like CASP are important and a critical first step in creating holistic programs that support social mobility,” says Zamacona. “It’s important for our university to learn and be able to implement our best practices campus-wide to better serve our students.”

“We are following the mission of the University of California to introduce and provide young people with education, and at the same time, developing these amazing scholars that are making contributions in every field,” says Delgadillo. “To see these students graduate from the university — and to see where they go after — is so inspiring. It’s really special to be a part of it.”

Is there a great program at your campus that you’d like to share with systemwide staff? Email the details to ucnetwork@universityofcalifornia.edu.

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