FirstGen Leadership

Howard Gillman

“Don’t be so hard on yourself — setbacks are inevitable but you’ll survive.”

Howard Gillman

Chancellor, UC Irvine

My backstory

I grew up as an only child in North Hollywood/Sun Valley with parents who worked hard through tough times. I started working my first real job with a boss and a paycheck when I was 15.

What motivated me to go to college

Education was deeply valued in our home. While my parents never went to college it was always understood that they were working to give me that opportunity — and by the time I applied I was excited to have a chance to learn (B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Political Science, UCLA).

What I would tell my freshman self

Don't be so hard on yourself — setbacks are inevitable but you'll survive. It goes by so fast so appreciate it while it's happening.

How my background helped me

A strong work ethic and the experience of persisting through tough times have been more helpful to me than any other qualities.

The best thing about my college experience

The friendships, and finding my place within this world of inquiry and discovery.

Dorothy Leland

“Find a mentor and never stop dreaming. Success isn’t easy but it’s worth every bump in the road.”

Dorothy Leland

Chancellor, UC Merced

My backstory

I grew up in a tiny Ventura County town called Fillmore. We were a blended family — Tex-Mex is how I describe it — and my family hadn’t gone to college, nor was college something they understood.

What motivated me to go to college

There were people in my life who took an interest in my success, encouraged my dreams and helped me to find opportunities to go to college.

What I would tell my freshman self

Find a mentor and never stop dreaming. Success isn’t easy but it’s worth every bump in the road.

How my background helped me

Growing up in an agricultural community, I learned the value of hard work and persistence. Those qualities didn’t just help in college but they’ve helped to shape my professional identity as well.

The best thing about my college experience

College gave me a new perspective on the world. Studying social and cultural identity gave me greater confidence in who I was as a person and who I wanted to become. It’s what ignited my passion for leadership and mentorship, something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

Eloy Oakley

“Enjoy the experience of going to college. Make friends, build a network and don’t rush through every class.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Member, UC Board of Regents

My backstory

I grew up in the South Los Angeles neighborhood called Florence-Firestone. As for many kids growing up in a working-class Mexican American family, higher education was not a topic of discussion at the dinner table. Nor were there many examples of friends or family that had successfully ventured off to college. So, my experience was typical of many of our first-generation students. It was not until after serving four years in the U.S. Army that I came to the realization that a college education was something that I needed to consider. Fortunately, I found a community college, Golden West College, that gave me the confidence I needed and the path I was looking for to UC Irvine (B.A., Environmental Analysis and Design, ’96; MBA, ’99).

What motivated me to go to college

Fear of not being able to support my family drove me to get enrolled in community college. I recognized that I had desire and potential but I lacked the credentials to accomplish what I dreamed of doing.

What I would tell my freshman self

Enjoy the experience of going to college. Make friends, build a network and don’t rush through every class.

How my background helped me

Given the life challenges I experienced, I developed a stubbornness that drove me through college even though I was working and raising a family. Some people call it hunger or grit but it was that motivation that focused me on completing college.

The best thing about my college experience

Meeting and learning from interesting faculty and gaining the confidence I needed in order to pursue my passions.

George Blumenthal

“Always be open to new ideas and to thinking critically about the subjects you are learning.”

George Blumenthal

Chancellor, UC Santa Cruz

My backstory

As a first-generation undergraduate student, when in high school, I didn’t even know it was possible to get a scholarship to college without playing football. I lived at home, went to college, and continuously worked at least 20 hours per week, first in a store, then in the public library system, and finally as an undergraduate researcher at the university.

What motivated me to go to college

I always knew I wanted a more interesting and rewarding career than my parents and grandparents had.

What I would tell my freshman self

Feel assured that you really do belong at the university. Don’t be afraid to move outside your comfort zone, and always be open to new ideas and to thinking critically about the subjects you are learning. Be willing to seize those opportunities that present themselves.

How my background helped me

Having balanced work with school my whole young life, I was undaunted by hard work. Even with family and work responsibilities, I was still able to graduate in three years and go on to graduate school (Ph.D., Physics, UC San Diego ’72).

The best thing about my college experience

I was able to greatly expand my horizons. I had numerous eye-opening insights about myself and about the subjects I was studying — whether I liked them or not. I was able to get involved in research and discovery, which proved to be a life-changing experience for me. And my many interactions with others outside the classroom, both friends and co-workers, had a very positive and lasting impact on my life.

Kim Wilcox

“That sense that there is a limitless universe of knowledge to be learned has remained with me my entire life.”

Kim A. Wilcox

Chancellor, UC Riverside

My backstory

I grew up in a small town in Michigan, and as early as I can remember, going to college was always assumed. My parents’ deep appreciation of a college education came from two very different experiences. My mother was valedictorian of her high school but wasn’t able to afford college after graduation. My father dropped out of school in the sixth grade, but realizing the importance of further education, went back and got his high school diploma many years later.

What motivated me to go to college

My parents’ lack of opportunity served as great motivators for pursuing as much education as possible.

What I would tell my freshman self

You’re not the only one feeling uncertain and self-conscious. Regardless of their background, nearly everyone else, even those who seem much more sophisticated and self-confident, are also feeling insecure and are wondering how best to fit in.

How my background helped me

It prepared me to work hard for my education both in the classroom and in a host of jobs. I worked year-round all the time I was in school. Since my parents hadn’t had the opportunity to attend college, each achievement along the way was a reason to celebrate: from gaining admission, to graduation, to going on to master’s and doctoral programs. What was the expected educational route for some of my friends was instead an important event for me and my family. That sense of accomplishment helped to support my ambitions.

The best thing about my college experience

Beyond the friends and mentors I gained, it was acquiring even a simple appreciation for the size of the world. Going to college exposed me to a world of learning that I never would’ve experienced had I stayed in in my hometown. I recall walking on the campus of Michigan State University as a freshman and being amazed that there was not only an entire building dedicated to chemistry, but an entirely different building dedicated to biochemistry! That sense that there is a limitless universe of knowledge to be learned has remained with me my entire life.