Making the Most of Summer at Academic Connections

Not many high school students look forward to spending summer break in a science lab, but it was Maryza Bustamante’s goal. The 16-year-old, who’ll be a junior at Imperial Valley High School in the fall, spent three weeks in July studying marine biology — in the classroom, in a lab and even in the ocean — as part of UC San Diego’s Academic Connections program, which seeks to prepare high school students for the rigors of college.

“We’d go out and actually get the phytoplankton ourselves and get the kelp ourselves,” Bustamante said. “Coming here I really wanted to do a lab-based class.”

Bustamante, who’s now considering a career in marine science and plans to apply to UC San Diego, is one of 45 students from Imperial County high schools who were awarded either full or partial scholarships to attend this year’s Academic Connections, held on campus July 9 through 29. The scholarship program is part of a larger initiative launched by university Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla to expand educational opportunities for students in Imperial County, where only 14 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree.

Being able to assist 45 students is a milestone for the fledgling program, which started in 2014 with seven scholarship recipients, one from each Imperial County high school. Roughly half of this year’s cohort are from the Migrant Education Program, a federal initiative that provides assistance to the children of farmworkers.

“All of these kids believe in education and they see the value of Academic Connections,” said Sandra Kofford, senior director for the Migrant Education Program for the Imperial County Office of Education. “They come from families who are very humble. They want a better life for their kids. The students seem to be very aware of that and they’re grateful to be part of this.”

Leonardo Gutierrez is one of those students. Gutierrez, who’ll be a senior at Brawley High School in the fall, said his interest in history and sociology led him to pick youth subcultures as his focus of study — Academic Connections offers participants 24 courses to choose from, ranging from epidemiology to mechanical engineering to critical thinking.
Gutierrez said he appreciated the emphasis the program puts on self-reliance. “It’s preparing students to be independent,” he said. “No one’s telling you to do your homework. I’m learning how to manage my time.”
The 17-year-old, who said he’d like to major in criminal justice, has two younger siblings that he hopes will be able to attend Academic Connections.
“I always try to be a role model for them,” he said.
In addition to classroom learning, Academic Connections also aims to boost participants’ leadership skills, said Ed Abeyta, director of pre-college programs for UC San Diego Extension. Using the social change model of leadership development as a guide, the program includes activities that emphasize collaboration and finding common purpose.
“It’s not just good enough in our opinion to be great scientists,” Abeyta said. “You also have to be engaged in a world that’s ever-changing.”
Imperial County is 85 percent Hispanic, Kofford pointed out, and many of her students mention in their application letters that they’d like the chance to meet teens from other parts of the U.S. and the world — Academic Connections draws students from more than two dozen states and multiple countries, Abeyta said.
But community pride is also a key part of the experience, Abeyta said, driven by students, parents and alums of the program who are eager to share their experience with future attendees. Cynthia Cortez, a recipient of the first round of scholarships — who’s currently studying chemical engineering at UC San Diego — greeted this year’s Imperial County cohort and their parents when they arrived on campus. The university chartered buses so parents could accompany their students on the trip to San Diego, Abeyta said.
And, on Saturday, July 29, the same buses brought parents back to the campus for the graduation ceremony that caps the program.
“It’s the most moving experience I’ve ever seen,” Abeyta said, “the pride on the parents’ faces.”

Learn more about Academic Connections and other Pre-College programs on our website, or contact us at / (858) 534-0804.

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