When Frank Lloyd Wright famously stated, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles,” he was talking about the city’s endless capacity to absorb influences, ideas, attitudes — and people. Long before it became a metropolis, L.A. was multicultural, a trend that has ebbed and flowed but never abated since the city’s origin as a Mexican pueblo 157 years ago.

According to the 2000 Census, 40 percent of L.A.’s 3.6 million residents at the time were foreign-born, the second largest percentage of any major U.S. city. L.A. was home to more Armenians, Bulgarians, Ethiopians, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Hungarians, Koreans, Mexicans, Pacific Islanders, Russians and Thais than any city in the world outside their native lands. The numbers, by all accounts, have only grown since then.

UCLA, like Los Angeles itself, beckons to the determined. It summons the hopeful. It changes the prospects for families from every corner of the globe. This is where we all come to reinvent ourselves, to make better lives for ourselves and for our children, to give breath to dreams.

“When there are waves of immigration, whether it’s Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mexican or Iranian, it always reflects what is happening in the world at large,” explains Judith Smith, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education at UCLA. “When people come to the U.S., to California, to UCLA, they are looking to make a new start, to do something big.”

That promise of a new and better life is no doubt behind many of the 50,000-plus applications UCLA receives every year. Indeed, one out of every four of the approximately 24,500 undergrads in this academic year was born outside the U.S., and more than 60 percent have at least one parent who was born abroad. Nearly four out of every 10 students will be part of the first generation in their families to graduate from a four-year university, including 29 percent who are Chicanos or Latinos; Caucasians, including students of Middle Eastern, Russian and European descent (20 percent); and Chinese (17 percent).

About six in 10 of the foreign-born undergrads are from Asian countries, led by China at 24 percent and Korea at 12 percent. But there are sizable percentages of students from the Philippines, Southeast Asia, India and Pakistan. Twenty-one percent of foreign-born Bruins are Caucasians, and Chicano and Latino students make up another 12 percent.

Robert Cox, manager for institutional research in the UCLA Office of Analysis and Information Management, says the numbers, similar to those at other UC campuses, suggest that educating immigrants and first-generation Americans has become “a central, even dominant, social function of undergraduate education in the University of California.”

There are many different kinds of Bruins who can lay claim to the descriptor “first generation,” and not all the differences are ethnic, racial or religious. Hans Johnson, research fellow at the San Francisco–based Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), warns that when making policy and reviewing the results of its admission procedures, the university should not consider this group monolithic.

“In terms of education, there are two predominant types of immigrant groups: those that were very poorly educated in their home countries and those who were highly educated,” he notes. “The challenge for the state moving forward, and ultimately for its universities, will be to educate the children of that first group. To simply say that these kids have done better than their parents will not be enough.”

Still, says Cox, there’s a lot more that unites UCLA students than divides them, no matter their origin. “The fact of the matter is, if they got into UCLA, they’re smart, they’re ambitious, and they’re hard workers. They have more in common than we realize.”

That’s certainly true for UCLA undergrad Ginger McCartney, perhaps not the kind of first-generation student that fits the stereotype, but who nonetheless describes her hometown in the Coachella Valley as “a place you better plan to leave or you never will.” As the youngest of three children with a father who “was into drugs” and a mother “who was into us,” McCartney figured out early on that education was the only way she’d be able to change her destiny. So did her older sister, who attends Stanford.

“There are lots of kinds of diversity on campus, in my dorm, in my classes,” McCartney says. “It’s not just race and culture, but people have lots of different family and growing-up experiences that make them different and I can learn from,” she says. “I don’t know what you call that, but I like it.”

Call it determination. Call it hope. By any name, it is the stuff that Bruins are made of.

Ana Lopez

“My family is counting on me.”

Ana Lopez is a UCLA senior who’s broken barriers and shattered stereotypes both here and in her native Mexico. She now finds herself months away from graduating with a major in applied math and a minor in statistics.

“I don’t know why, but I just always knew I wanted to get a degree,” she says. “It wasn’t like I had any role model for that. My mom didn’t even get past first grade, and I remember as a kid my dad teaching her how to read. But in spite of that, and the fact that Mexican women are ‘supposed’ to get married and have kids and then stay home and do chores all day, I always wanted something more.”

Lopez completed high school in Mexico before coming to L.A. seven years ago. “At first, my only goal was to learn English. I knew that was the first step. Then, I decided I would try and get my A.A. degree. I enrolled at East L.A. College and started working and studying in the math department. After a while, people started asking me if I was going to transfer to a university,” she recalls. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know what they were talking about.”

Lopez’ inquisitive mind, however, had been sparked, and she began to research some of the nuances of the higher education system in California. Armed with this information, she was prepared when her math tutor at ELAC suggested she apply to UCLA. Prepared, yes. But confident? No.

“My first reaction was, ‘It’s too expensive.’ My second reaction was, ‘My English is not good enough.’ Those are the first two things all immigrants think when they get here — it’s out of your reach. But it wasn’t, and here I am.”

Lopez was assisted early on by UCLA’s esteemed Academic Advancement Program (AAP), which is in its 35th year pursuing “access, equity, opportunity and excellence” for underrepresented populations on campus. Lopez availed herself of AAP’s vast network of counseling and tutors, and now gives back by working with the program’s Center for Community College Partnerships, visiting local schools to spread the word about UCLA. AAP also aims to grow the ranks of first-generation college attendees who go on to pursue graduate degrees, something that Lopez will do.

“My family is counting on me. That’s something all first-generation college students understand, no matter what their background is,” she says. “I already make more [money] than my dad, and while I have always relied on them, the time is coming when they will rely on me, and I am preparing for that.”

Marwa Kaisey

“Out there it’s like a microcosm of the world.”

Another student who crossed borders to get here is senior and current Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) president Marwa Kaisey. Born in Iraq, she and her family fled the country during the first Gulf War. “It’s one of those dramatic stories,” she admits. “We had to leave everything behind and start over. We first moved to England and lived in three different cities in five years. We didn’t find it very welcoming,” she says. When Kaisey was 16, they moved to California, in part because “we’d heard about the great university system, and we knew there were people here from all over the world.” She attended high school in San Diego and arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2003.

“Don’t you just love it?” she asks, waving her hand toward the window of her third-floor office in Kerckhoff Hall. “Out there it’s like a microcosm of the world. It’s not just in class that you learn, but on the floor of the residence hall, walking across campus. If you’re open to it, you can learn about the world just by talking to the person next to you when you’re in line at the student store.”

She laments that many of the school’s multicultural events are attended only by people who look just like those up on stage performing. “It does seem sometimes like we just entertain ourselves,” she says. “But I consider myself an honorary member of all the groups, and I try to attend as many different types of events as I can.” Kaisey adds that as the school’s (and maybe the UC’s) first Arab — and also the first Muslim — student body president, she feels like not only a representative for USAC, but also an ambassador of sorts for the Middle East.

“Most people only think of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and then they meet me and they can have maybe their first personal experience with someone who is Muslim or Arab,” she says. “Because we’re all so different, students at UCLA learn from each other like this all the time … and then we see that we’re not that different after all.”

Gbenga Elehinafe

“My friends back in Nigeria expect me to do big things.”

Gbenga Elehinafe also believes education is a reciprocal process at UCLA, where he both learns from and teaches others because of his diverse life experience and that of his peers. Through his work with the Nigerian Student Association, Elehinafe stays connected to his own culture and helps “those who were born in the United States to have a feel of what it is to be Nigerian.”

Arriving from Africa with his family in 2001, Elehinafe graduated from Ulysses S. Grant High School in Van Nuys and then attended Los Angeles Valley College before transferring to UCLA in fall 2005. The fourth-year senior and mechanical engineering major says the campus feels very international and welcoming to him, although he is very aware of being “the only black person” in most of his classes.

“Sometimes people judge you once they see you and hear you talk, based on your accent, without even getting to know you,” he admits. But this just makes him work harder to bridge the cultural divide. “I socialize with students of various backgrounds because I believe that is part of the education process. I learn new things [from them] every day, which will definitely come in handy in this global economy.”

In addition to his work with the Nigerian Student Association, Elehinafe is the second vice president of the UCLA chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and is actively involved in the Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity and several other groups.

“Because I am in the U.S., most of my friends back in Nigeria expect me to do big things because they understand the opportunity that comes with going to a school like UCLA. The future is bright, and there are a lot of things I want to do,” he says, adding simply, “I hope to be an employer, not an employee.”

Anna Li

“Being the first in my family to attend elementary school, junior high and high school in America wasn’t an easy task,” says the Chinese-American undergrad. “I remember a lot of my friends having their parents help them with homework, while my parents were learning English themselves,” she recalls.

And now that she’s at UCLA, it’s not that different. “[My parents] don’t know what college life is like, and I’m the first one in my family to experience this lifestyle.”

Jessica Hatrak

While her siblings mastered various trades, including electrical and cosmetology, freshman political science major and first-generation Bruin Jessica Hatrak has set her sights far beyond the small Inland Empire town where her family lives: “I will definitely go to graduate school, maybe law school, maybe something else, but I want to learn a lot of languages, travel and get involved in international relations.”

Hatrak explains that “for a lot of reasons, college was not really an option when my siblings were going to high school, so I am the first to go,” adding, “I feel like most of the people I meet, and that’s people from all over the country and the world, have parents who went to college and have more of a clue than I do.”