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The First in Their Families

A donor-supported initiative helps high-achieving first-gen students excel

Ingrid Lopez Higuera remembers the relief she felt when she received her acceptance letter from UC Santa Barbara: She had accomplished her only goal since leaving the rest of her family in Mexico as a teen immigrant. Moving to campus, however, was a whole new challenge.

“I was afraid I was not going to find my own comfort and community here,” said Lopez Higuera, who just finished her first year on campus. “but everyone was so welcoming and kind that almost a year later, I am able to refer to UC Santa Barbara as home.”

Key to her transition was her participation in PROPEL. Lopez Higuera is one of 22 students in the first cohort of the PRomoting OPportunity and Equity in Learning (PROPEL) Scholars Program, an initiative for high-achieving, first-generation, low-income students majoring in the social sciences. In addition to scholarship funding, PROPEL scholars receive wraparound counseling, advising and academic services throughout their entire undergraduate experience.

Alumni donors like Desi ’99 and Gaby Speh help to fund the initiative.

“Gaby and I wanted to help first-generation students,” said Desi Speh. “To do it at UC Santa Barbara meant so much to me and my family. It’s a way to support diversity at the campus.”

PROPEL helps students take advantage of campus resources from the very beginning. It also helps students find their place within the broader discipline of the social sciences.

“We are keen for students to identify not just with their major, but with the larger endeavor of the social sciences,” said Charles Hale, SAGE Sara Miller McCune Dean of Social Sciences. “This means using your research skills and what you learn in the classroom to engage the high stakes and crucial social problems of our society. The cohort model is about creating a sense of a larger identity for these students, and identification with what you might call the mission of the social sciences.”

Hale aims to sustain 25 students per cohort for the next four years. There is a long list of motivated, talented students who would thrive in PROPEL. With increased private support, the program’s objective is to serve more students.

“Dollar for dollar, there’s no better way to use your generosity than to help individual students succeed. It's an amazing impact. It really is the promise of the University of California to be a motor of upward mobility for all students,” said Hale.

The Spehs made their gift to PROPEL on UCSB Give Day. “We were inspired by seeing everyone get involved with the programs they’re most passionate about,” said Speh. “Give Day is a day to focus on something that meant so much to all of us. As we get older, we understand the impact of our time at UC Santa Barbara. The gift of helping others to share that experience fills my heart, and I’m excited to continue.”

For Lopez Higuera, a student activist, being a PROPEL scholar gets her closer to her goal of becoming a lawyer. “The PROPEL Scholars Program has impacted my personal life quite a lot,” she said. “I have two amazing advisors who check up on me regularly. Academically, it has allowed me to challenge myself and taught me to know my limits. I have met great people and I am excited to see what my future with this program will look like.”