When Jonathan Shi received his acceptance letter to UCLA, the moment was bittersweet. He wanted to attend, but he worried about how his mother would pay.
“My mom really wanted me to have this experience, but I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable letting my mom take that on,” Shi said. “I was considering doing two years at community college first to save money.”
Then a scholarship letter arrived. It wasn’t just any scholarship – it was UCLA’s Big Bang Theory Scholarship, funded by the cast and crew of the hit TV show of the same name.
The scholarship supports low-income students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, and it was the missing piece in Shi’s financial puzzle. His decision was made. The next four years became a whirlwind of science classes, medical internships, and visits to the set of the show to get to know the actors, producers, and dozens of others he calls his “benefactors.”
“I’ve never met so many celebrities at once, and I was actually a bit nervous,” Shi said.
The Big Bang Theory UCLA Scholarship Endowment started in 2015 by providing four-year scholarships to five new students every year, and additional donations from 2019 are helping it expand to 10 students annually. The $5.5 million scholarship endowment was raised as part of the recently completed Centennial Campaign in honor of UCLA’s 100th year. The campaign brought in more than $665 million in student support, providing much-needed assistance to thousands of students.
Actress Mayim Bialik, who played Amy on the show and graduated from UCLA with a doctorate in neuroscience, often described how proud she was to have contributed to the scholarship.
“We’re very honored and we’re very grateful that we’ve been able to be part of your journey, and in this case, to lighten your load,” Bialik told Big Bang Scholars at a set visit during the show’s final season.
Now Shi, a first-generation college student from a low-income family in Huntington Beach, California, is in his last year at UCLA, majoring in biology, and planning a career in medicine to give back to his community.
Like Shi, nearly a third of UCLA undergraduates are first-generation college students, and more than 35 percent of undergrads receive Pell Grants, federal financial aid for students from low-income families. For Shi, who remembers what it’s like to be the last person to turn in a field trip form in elementary school because a $15 fee is a barrier, the scholarship made it possible for him to sample the variety that UCLA had to offer.
“I’m really grateful to this scholarship because it allowed me to confidently enroll in UCLA without worrying about finances,” Shi said. “It allowed me to lessen the pressure on my mom to support me in college. It allowed me to cut down my work hours, and allowed me to explore different avenues to find out what suited me. I only needed to work 20 hours per week, and I was able to use the rest of my time to branch out and explore the different options I was interested in.”
His freshman and sophomore years, he was a hospital intern at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, first helping doctors and nurses tend to patients and later helping train new interns. He also worked in an HIV lab, studying mutations in the virus’s coating. Later, he joined the plant ecology research lab run by one of his professors, Nathan Kraft.
“Jonathan is widely known in my lab for the contagious enthusiasm and tremendous positivity that he brought both to my plant ecology course as a student and later as a student researcher,” said Kraft, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “He embodies the best of what faculty hope for in our students at UCLA — he is bright, passionate, hard-working, and he cares deeply about making the campus community and the world at large a better place.”
Having explored different avenues, Shi committed this year to his true passion: working in community-based health care. He volunteers with the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project, which provides health care to people experiencing homelessness and works to reconnect them to a stable source of health care. Shi’s interest in advocating for overlooked communities started when he was a kid, he said.
“People would make fun of my mom’s English and her Chinese accent, and at the doctor, I could see them discounting her concerns in ways that made it even harder for her to speak up for herself,” Shi said. “That experience is unacceptable, but it’s not unique. I want to empower and validate the experiences of marginalized communities.”
In addition to time in the field, Shi and his fellow clinic volunteers take a service-learning class at UCLA to help them better grasp the causes of homelessness, and help them be more considerate when they advise patients.
“What stands out for me is that this really can happen to anyone,” Shi said. “We need more work on prevention. I helped one man who had just moved from out-of-state when his job offer fell through. He only had rent money for a month. When someone is in that situation, how many resources do you know of that can help them? Health shouldn’t be a luxury.”
Work with the mobile clinic allows him to help others and pursue his passion, but without the scholarship, he doubts he would have had the freedom in his schedule to pursue such an ambitious project.
“Before I got this scholarship, there was a real chance that I would only spend two years at UCLA,” Shi said. “I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity.”
Students like Shi are one of the reasons the scholarship was formed, Bialik said in an interview during Shi’s first visit to the set.
“These are the people who could potentially be the next innovators and the next research discovery pioneers, and all of that happens at a place like UCLA,” Bialik said. “Imagine if someone literally could not afford to go to UCLA. … We get to contribute to a pool that increases the probability that someone will be able to have that experience.”