During the first week of classes, a typical freshman might have been bumbling around UC San Diego’s campus, but not Cynthia Cortez.
A first-year student from Imperial Valley, Cortez felt right at home.
“I knew how to get around, and everyone was, like, ‘How do you know so much?’” Cortez recalled. “I told them it was because of Academic Connections. They were, like, ‘What is that?’”
Simply put, Academic Connections is a rigorous college preparatory program held on the UC San Diego campus for three weeks during the summer. The program, which UC San Diego Extension runs, aims to provide high-achieving students like Cortez with a college-like experience to help them prepare for the real thing—both academically and socially.
Cortez said the program did that and more.
“It was a key factor in me ultimately being here at UC San Diego,” Cortez said. “It gave me an academic advantage, but it allowed me to grow as a person.”
But Cortez might not have had that chance if not for UC San Diego Extension’s scholarship program that ensures qualified students from diverse backgrounds can attend Academic Connections, which costs $3,900. That price tag can make the program out of reach for many families in Imperial County, where around 22 percent of the population lives under the poverty line and the median household income is $43,310.
At the urging of UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, Extension created both an outreach and scholarship program for high-achieving students in Imperial Valley. Cortez was in the first round of scholarship recipients when the program was launched three years ago. Last summer, UC San Diego Extension provided twenty-one full and partial scholarships for the program, including nine full scholarships to high school students at each of Imperial County’s schools as well as ten full scholarships to migrant students.
Ed Abeyta, assistant dean of community engagement and director of pre-college programs for UC San Diego Extension, said the scholarship program was designed to deliver on the university’s Strategic Plan, which identifies commitments to diversity and equity as key goals. This is especially important in Imperial County, where only around 13 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree.
“The impact on the students, parents, and members of the community who have not previously had access to these educational resources has been transformative,” Abeyta said. “Academic Connections helps students see themselves in college and prepares them to succeed.”
Cortez, who studied at Holtville High School in Imperial Valley, said it opened her eyes to the rigors of college. While she decided to major in chemical engineering, Cortez selected an Academic Connections course that looked at how.
“The class was the same workload as what I was used to in high school,” she said. “But the content and expectations were at a much higher level. There was more analysis and you had to reach below the surface. That class made me think about why something is the way it is. It sparked a higher level of learning for me.”
J. Todd Finnell, Imperial County’s superintendent of schools, said the scholarships for Academic Connections are especially important because so many of the students in the community have had only limited experiences with university campuses because many are the first in their families to go to college.
“This program has taken students with interest and ability and paired it with opportunity and access,” said Finnell. “It really comes down to opportunity and access, and that is what is so important for our community.”
Because of Cortez’s success in Academic Connections, Abeyta selected her to participate in Extension’s Global Environmental Leadership and Sustainability (GELS) program in Washington, D.C. GELS, which is held in a variety of locations, including Arizona, Hawaii, and now China, is designed to provide high-achieving high school students the opportunities to engage in and address environmental issues.
Cortez said her experience in Washington, D.C. was another growth opportunity that gave her the confidence that she could succeed in college and beyond. She remembers running over to talk to Rep. Juan Vargas, a congressman from San Diego County she had met as part of the program. The program instructor was surprised and impressed.
“He said, ‘When you first came here, you were really shy and soft spoken, but by the end, you made sure we knew what your opinions were,’” Cortez recalled.
Abeyta said Cortez is a prime example of why outreach to Imperial County will continue to grow—because it benefits the community and UC San Diego.
“We are planting the seeds of knowledge that will help cultivate the next generation,” he said.
For her part, Cortez realizes Academic Connections was an integral part of charting her future course.
“Without Academic Connections, I think I’d still be in college and, hopefully, at UC San Diego,” she said. “But I don’t think I’d feel as comfortable or as prepared as I am. I do see this place as my second home.”
We offer a range of Pre-College programs at UC San Diego Extension. Learn more about Academic Connections, GELS and more.