Growing up in South Los Angeles, Jeremy Edwards was frequently on the move with his hard-working single mom.
Partly because of the family’s limited income but more so to find neighborhoods with access to decent schools away from gangs and drugs, he and his mother moved five times before he graduated from Westchester High School.
“She didn’t want me caught up in the wrong stuff,” said Edwards. “Both my parents, who were divorced, always instilled in me, ‘Make sure you get your education.’ I heard that all the time from my mom and dad, who was a very prominent figure in my life. Living paycheck to paycheck was really not what I envisioned for myself.”
In June, Edwards will become the first in his immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree, and then he’ll head straight into a Ph.D. program in education at UC Santa Barbara, which he chose over Harvard, Columbia and other universities.
Edwards, 22, is quick to credit a pre-college program, established at UCLA in 2006 through private donations, as well as the scholarships he received supported by gifts.
The Centennial Campaign for UCLA aims to raise support for undergraduate student scholarships and graduate student fellowships so that students like Edwards can fulfill their full potential.
“The VIP Scholars Program, which is part of the Academic Advancement Program, became one of the most important factors in my life,” said Edwards, who joined the pre-college program in 10th grade. The year-round program, which includes an on-campus residential experience in the summer that helps historically underrepresented students envision themselves as college students taking college-level courses, was established with funding from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and the Draine Family Foundation.
“As a VIP Scholar, I stayed on UCLA’s campus for two summers, first, at Hedrick Hall and, the following year, at Sproul,” Edwards recalled. “I was 15 when I first stepped onto this campus, and it just opened up a new world for me. I was like, ‘Wow! Oh my God! It’s so beautiful here.‘“
In addition to summer workshops that refined his academic skills and prepared him for college work and for taking the SAT and ACT, Edwards met weekly during the school year with UCLA students who came to Westchester to mentor the high school students.
The program also gave him an early grounding in research: At 17, he embarked on a project to compare the environment at two different high schools in L.A. and how students’ ability to learn and to get into college was affected by access to resources. “That opened my eyes to a lot of injustices that exist within education,” he said.
Once he was accepted into UCLA, private philanthropy played a key role in keeping him there and helping him excel.
As a VIP Scholar at UCLA, Edwards received scholarship support from the Wasserman Foundation. The awards are made possible by generous support from the late Lew Wasserman, longtime chairman of MCA, and his wife, Edie, who died in 2011. Their grandson, Casey Wasserman, now serves as the foundation’s president and CEO and meets each year with scholarship recipients.
These awards make it possible for exceptional UCLA students like Edwards to participate in faculty research or work on thesis projects.
“Research isn’t for everyone,” Edwards acknowledged. “But it’s what I love doing. I’ve been blessed to have that opportunity at UCLA. “
Currently, he is wrapping up a two-year research project, which he undertook as a McNair Scholar, that examines how taking the SAT affected the psychological well-being of underrepresented students as well as their academic outcomes. Freed from the need to work and worry about how to pay for college, Edwards said he’s been able to make great progress academically, getting on the Dean’s List three times.
Before he moves on to graduate work, Edwards is spending some of his limited free time volunteering for the VIP Scholars Program, helping out at weekend workshops on campus for the next cohort of high school students who are walking the same uphill path he did.
Edwards said he realizes how fortunate he is — he has only had to take out one student loan for $1,700 while at UCLA. During his four years here, he has managed to win an impressive list of awards, scholarships and honors.
Looking back at all his success, Edwards said receiving such validation only motivated him to work harder. “I celebrated every one of those for a few minutes. And then it was back to work, doing what I needed to do to keep making progress.”