@UCSD: An Alumni Publication

An Alumni Publication   Archive vol1no3 Contact
Up Front: Letters to and from the editor
Campus Currents: UCSD Stories
Shelf Life: Books
Cliff Notes: Student life and sports
Class Notes: Alumni profiles
Campaign Update: Imagine the Future
Looking Back: Thoughts on UCSD
Credits: Staff and Contributors

Provoking Thinkers
Beating the Odds
Welcome to the      Wonder Years at      Calit2
Da Vinci Decoded

Making Waves

(Sea)Horse Whisperer
Argo and the Drifters
Triton Spidermen
Carry On
These Shoes Were      Made for Running





Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Beating the Odds
by Paul Mueller

Most of the students on UCSD’s sun-washed campus seem to be a privileged bunch. But not all are.

We see them strolling along Library Walk, tossing footballs on a RIMAC field, hunched over textbooks at Price Center tables, laughing with friends as they spill out of lectures. Most of the students on UCSD’s sun-washed campus seem to be a privileged bunch. But not all are, as the people who evaluate scholarship applications for the Alumni Leadership Scholarship Program quickly learned. Many have overcome, or are overcoming, difficulties and painful challenges in their young lives—obstacles that make their presence on campus all the more remarkable.

And deciding which of these worthy students most deserve the Alumni Leadership Scholarships—two-year scholarships of $2,000 a year—is a process fraught with equal amounts of admiration, compassion and frustration, because so many deserve help, and funds are so limited.

The scholarship program, established in 2005, offers alumni a practical way to help undergraduate leadership-orientated students during their junior and senior years and is intended to offset or replace federal funds or work-study monies.

Mary Johnson, assistant director of program development for the Alumni Association, illustrates the dilemmas faced by the selection committee when she describes students who were awarded the scholarships, and some who were not. She does not use their real names, but the details of their lives at home, at work, and in school, illustrate how many candidates merit recognition for their struggles and their fierce determination to succeed—both at UCSD and at life.

Sue Hart, Ph.D. ’86, served on the Alumni Leadership Committee and says it’s difficult to choose. “Their level of achievement would be remarkable even if they had not encountered any obstacles,” she says, “but the stories of the hardships they have overcome are truly inspiring.”

Fellow committee member Kenneth Schell, ’78, considers “demonstration of accountability and future impact on society” when making a choice, and admits that an “intangible feeling of humanity” helps him decide.

The students’ stories fairly glow with that intangible feeling.

One scholarship recipient, we will call him “James,” admits he was not a model student in middle school or high school, and says he did not receive “useful encouragement or direction” from his teachers and counselors. James didn’t consider college an option, and entered the workforce after graduation. Nothing exceptional there, except that at home his mother had been accused in a highly publicized criminal trial and his only sibling was suffering from debilitating mental disorders. His mother was acquitted, but the family had been deeply wounded, and he felt humiliated. “The ordeal left a still-unhealed wound on my family’s financial and mental stability,” he says.

Chancellor Marye Anne Fox (right) with scholarship recipients and John Valva, director of Alumni Relations (second from left).

A resourceful and resilient young man, James eventually began classes at a community college and earned top academic honors, which gained him admission to UCSD. “I went from being one of the worst students in high school to one of the best students in college,” he says. James is grateful for the Leadership Scholarship because all the family’s surplus money must go to health-care and medical costs for his sibling, and he barely gets by on part-time work, and partial grants. But his study and work have not stopped him playing an active leadership role in the arts community in San Diego, where he is particularly interested in advancing gender equity and documenting the current societal and political challenges of immigration. “Despite the many obstacles I have encountered,” he says, “I believe that success is ultimately based on the mistakes we make along the way, and on the lessons that we learn from them.”

Another student, “Maria,” is the first in her family to attend a university, and is doing so despite many personal and family hardships. Maria works part time while taking a full load of courses. “The past quarter has been the hardest quarter of my college career,” she says. “I was under enormous stress and suffered depression.” This was due to her parents’ separation, unemployment, and resulting family upheaval. The misery of an unhappy home life, however, hasn’t distracted her focus on long-term goals. “Despite the circumstances and conflicts I am determined to devote myself to my studies,” she says. “I didn’t want my situation to be an excuse for inferior grades.”

A recipient of several scholarship and provost honors, Maria has an impressive record of volunteer work for schools, libraries and orphanages. With her family unable to help her financially, the Alumni Leadership Scholarship—with other partial grants and her part-time work—allows her to persevere. “I’m inspired,” she says, “when I read true stories of Latina women surpassing the struggles of everyday life and demonstrating the strength of our people.”

An older student, “Daniel,” shares a background fraught with horror. His interests in psychology, the arts, and athletics lifted him out of a childhood “which nearly destroyed three young children and a mother.” His father, ravaged by methamphetamines and alcohol, subjected his family to years of emotional and financial turmoil.

“Once the methamphetamines wore off, my father’s anger and paranoia became mental and physical abuse,” Daniel says. “He raped my sister, tied me to a chair and forced me to watch, and then told us that he would kill us and our mother if we ever told anyone. …Once we lost everything, we moved into a tent trailer and went from state park to state park for six years.”

Rather than succumb to his circumstance, Daniel was determined to help other families in distress. Speaking of the children’s center that housed him as an abused child, he says, “I knew I would return, not as a displaced, abused child, but as a practitioner who could help these children.”

Now in his 30s and an undergraduate, Daniel’s ambition is to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology. By working part time and with the aid of the Leadership Scholarship and other partial grants, he manages to meet expenses. But Daniel gives back as much as he receives, with volunteer service to churches, hospitals, halfway houses and other community groups.

As difficult as their lives are, these were the lucky ones. They received scholarships. The Alumni Leadership Committee received 124 applications and 69 students met all the criteria. Since there were funds for only 11 scholarships, the choices facing the committee were daunting.

“Kevin,” is just one of the many who did not receive a scholarship and he neither expects nor receives monetary help from his family. The eldest son, Kevin was 13 when his mother was diagnosed with Grave’s disease and underwent heart surgery, and he faced the possibility of losing her. Two years ago, his father suffered a grand-mal seizure and, to make matters worse, his sister was assaulted and became pregnant. But he fought back his own anger to help his sister face her bleak situation. She gave birth to a girl and Kevin says the baby inspires him every day. “I am glad for the knowledge I have gained and will be able to share with her,” he says. Still he faces a difficult financial struggle and gets by on partial scholarships and grants, and by summertime work for a general contractor. “I have embarked upon only a fraction of the journeys that I will encounter in my life,” he says.

Yet another student, “Derek,” says, with plaintiff simplicity, that “not everyone is meant to be a parent.” His mother lacked the ability to handle the pressures of life and regularly beat him and his brother. Without a father in their lives, the boys endured the abuse until they were big enough that she couldn’t do that anymore. When Derek was 17, his mother concocted false charges against him and, without resources, he spent months in jail.

“I saw first-hand how society treats the poor and homeless,” he says. He also says that he’s a strong person, and he fought for survival. “I was lucky—over time, I grew the ability to set aside my feelings every night and sat myself down to do my homework.” That drive helped get him admitted to UCSD, but during his freshman year fate struck again when his brother was diagnosed with brain cancer. His brother has since recovered, and both of them have re-established contact with their father. Derek barely manages to cover his expenses with other grants and a variety of jobs, including tutoring, food-service work, and selling tires.

“It was both harrowing and inspiring to read these applicant files,” says John Valva, UCSD’s director of Alumni Relations. “I honestly don’t know how students with these types of personal hardships still manage to succeed in the challenging environment of UCSD. They are exceptional and we’re pleased we could offer 11 scholarships in just this first year. The program’s mission is to enable UCSD’s top students, who have considerable financial hardship, to succeed. And the program is really resonating with alumni volunteers and donors. Our goal is to offer as many as 40 to 50 scholarships each year, so we still have a way to go. But with these incredible 11 scholars we feel it’s been a great start.”

Paul Mueller is a senior communications advisor at UCSD.


Pass it On...Create a Scholarship

Alumni Leadership Scholarship

"As difficult as their lives are, these were the lucky ones. They received
scholarships. Since there were funds for only 11 scholarships, the choices facing the committee were daunting."