Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Students Who Inspired Me
By Janet Napolitano
Published June 29, 2016

Editor’s note: This column is one in a series written by University of California President Janet Napolitano as part of a partnership with New America Media, whose members include this publication.

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Earlier this summer, University of California campuses granted bachelor’s and advanced degrees to 67,000 individuals, each with stories of personal aspiration and accomplishment.

For me some of the most inspiring stories were about graduates dedicated to serving others.

At UC San Diego, Vince Pham mentored first-year students and served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Outside the campus, he tutored students in undeserved schools. Now that he has graduated, he will travel to Gong Ha, Vietnam, for a year of service as the recipient of a Fulbright English teaching award. When he returns, he plans to teach students in low-income communities.


Brian Vargas, wounded in Iraq as a Marine nine years ago and still struggling with related health problems, graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in social welfare at age 29. He was a tireless advocate at Cal and at Diablo Valley College, where he helped establish a student veterans center. Now he is working with a U.S. Veterans Administration psychologist on an innovative approach to deterring veterans from impulsive firearms suicide.

At the May meeting of the UC Board of Regents, I presented a leadership award to Maria Watson, the first African American woman to serve as student body president of UC Davis. Before graduation, she led efforts to expand the food pantry and to find ways to help students who cannot afford housing. Her service at UC Davis, she says, has given her the skills and confidence to aim for a life in public service, and perhaps politics.

Kevin Hale, a 53-year-old father of four and grandfather of three, graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology. At that campus, he became a student leader who mentored fellow students and promoted health, cultural pride and educational opportunities for Native Americans. Now a counselor with an alcohol treatment center, he has come a long way since the days a few years ago when he was sleeping behind a hardware store and battling alcoholism himself.

Hanni Schoniger and Jade Zamorano, who both majored in biology with minors in neuroscience at UC Riverside, founded an organization, Change in Scientific Importance for Youth, to motivate middle and high school students to go to college and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. Their organization created hands-on workshops for underserved youth in two Riverside-area schools.

Each of these graduates made the most of the opportunity to learn and grow at a UC campus, and contributed to public service before commencement.

These are just a few of the stories that bring the mission of the University of California to life. If you would like to read more, I hope you will visit our UC website:

Categories: Education | Op-Ed
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