Students + Campus

UCLA alum tells story of struggle, success to inspire high school students

A UC education is within reach, she tells Santa Ana High School students

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Esmeralda Garcia
Courtesy of UCOP

Esmeralda Garcia returned to Santa Ana High School to tell students about how she succeeded in getting into UCLA and graduating debt-free. She attended a school rally, along with UC President Janet Napolitano, aimed at persuading high school students that they too can become UC students.

When Esmeralda Garcia received a letter informing her that she had been admitted to UCLA, her reaction wasn’t what you would expect. She hid the letter from her family and friends rather than shout for joy.

She had applied with the thought that she would use her UCLA rejection letter as proof to teachers that she had given it her best shot. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to fit in. I’m not going be able to afford it,’” Garcia recalled. The child of immigrant parents who couldn’t read or write, she entered Santa Ana High School reading at a fifth-grade level, but had worked diligently on improving her academic skills. When she found out she’d gotten into UCLA, she panicked. Fortunately, her high school counselors and teachers ultimately persuaded her that she was indeed UC material.

On May 19, four years after that fateful letter arrived, Garcia went back to Santa Ana High to share her inspirational story with 500 high-achieving freshmen, sophomores and juniors to persuade them that they could be UC material as well.

Courtesy of UCOP
UC President Janet Napolitano met with Santa Ana High School seniors who are bound for UC campuses in the fall.

“It’s hard work — nothing is handed to you,” Garcia told students at a rally attended by UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman. “But you can do it. You can fight for your dreams.”

Garcia was able to cobble together enough financial aid and scholarship money to cover the complete cost of her education. She graduated from UCLA in 2014 debt-free, having never had to take out a loan, she told the students.

Now a health care recruiter for Maxim Healthcare Services, Garcia delivered a heartfelt message to the predominantly Hispanic, mostly low-income student body. “People think students like us don’t go to college. You all can change that stereotype.”

Heralded by the school’s marching band, a pep squad and school mascots Sammy and Sally Saint, Napolitano also assured students that a UC education was attainable.

“I’m here to tell you today, that ‘Yes, you can,’” Napolitano said. “Getting into the University of California is not easy, but it is doable, and students just like you do it every year.”

Napolitano relayed the story of Maria Garcia, a Santa Ana student who will start attending UCLA this fall. “She exemplifies the word ‘persistent.’” The only child of a single mother, she worked part-time in the school office to help support her mother. Last summer, she participated in a pre-med program run by UC and learned how to suture a wound, apply a cast, insert an I.V. and operate the controls of a Da Vinci surgical robot.

“By the end of that summer program, she knew she was going to pursue a life in medicine,” Napolitano said. With help from her teachers, Maria got the classes she needed to qualify for admission.

Maria’s extensive volunteer work at an afterschool academic skills center and with her church’s children’s choir was recognized by the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce when it awarded her the Difference Maker Award.

The oldest and largest high school in Orange County, Santa Ana is 98 percent Hispanic. Many of its students are English language learners, and most qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. Despite the fact that UC Irvine is only nine miles away, many Santa Ana students see a UC education as something that is far beyond their reach.

Officials hoped the visit by Napolitano, Garcia and others will change that perception.

The path to a UC education may be strenuous, but it is straightforward, Napolitano said: Complete the required curriculum and take the SAT, take tough classes, earn good grades.

And students from families that make $80,000 or less have their tuition fully covered under UC’s Blue and Gold opportunity plan. Work-study, financial aid, scholarships, grants and low-interest loans are available to help students cover living expenses.

That news came as a surprise to many students at the rally.

“You’re the only person who can change your life,” Garcia told them. “I’m just here to tell you that you can do whatever you want to do.”

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