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Diverse Applicants Awaken Their Inner Storyteller

A UC San Diego undergraduate student sits with a local high school student in a lecture hall to give personalized feedback on her personal insight questions as she prepares to submit a University of California application.
Dozens of local high school students from across San Diego County took part in UC Insights, a program developed by the Raza Resource Centro to help distill their diverse stories into compelling personal insight questions (PIQs) for the University of California (UC) application. Photos by Erika Johnson/University Communications.

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 Walking into the Center Hall classroom at UC San Diego on a Saturday afternoon in November, you could hear pockets of conversations happening among pairs of undergraduates and high school students, “You don’t need flowery language,” said one undergrad. “Don’t go off on a tangent” counseled another. Each high school student is seated in a distinct section of the room dedicated to outlining, drafting or polishing their writing, deep in concentration as they consider how to convey their ideas. The annual workshop, called UC Insights, attracts high school students from across San Diego County to help distill their diverse stories into compelling personal insight questions (PIQs) for the University of California (UC) application.
 

UC San Diego junior Jesus Medina Alcantar completed the program three years ago and returned to serve as a tutor. His nametag held the word “polishing” on it, letting high school students know he was available to help evaluate their essays to ensure they answered the question fully in 350 words, stayed on-topic and provided valuable insights about themselves.

As a first-generation student whose family immigrated to the United States, Medina Alcantar said the program helped clarify the pathway to college when he was applying. “Resources like this help students know what they need and be better prepared; it opens the door,” explained the mathematics-computer science major who’s pursuing a minor in education. “Some of us are new to this country so this helps us catch up with everyone else. And even if they are not immigrants, a lot of students still don't know about the UC application process. It can be very confusing. I want to help them in the same way I was helped.”

A UC San Diego undergraduate student sits in a lecture hall on campus next to a high school student, looking at a laptop and helping him craft his personal insight question answer.
UC San Diego junior Jesus Medina Alcantar (left) completed the UC Insights program three years ago and returned to serve as a tutor, helping high school students polish their work.

 And the strategy is working. An average of 60% of high school students who complete the UC Insights program are accepted to a University of California campus. The collaborative program was launched five years ago by the Raza Resource Centro. Since then, the initiative has expanded in impact through partnerships with the Office of Admissions, Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP) and the Teaching + Learning Commons.

“Our goal is to teach high school students how to write their story in a multi-vocal way to accentuate different windows of their life, conveying how they have found sources of empowerment through the obstacles they may have faced,” said Gerardo Arellano, director of the Raza Resource Centro. “We are validating their stories and helping them provide examples that demonstrate breadth, character, morals and leadership.”

Many students in the program are first in their family to graduate from college, come from a low-income family household and are part of a historically underrepresented group. Their participation in UC Insights is fully funded by the Raza Resource Centro, including transportation to UC San Diego and lunch halfway through the day. The Centro also trains the undergraduate writing tutors, who are connected to them via the Teaching & Learning Commons, and volunteers.

Another important component of the program is hearing directly from Admissions experts who get immersed in reading thousands of applications each spring. Assistant Director of Admissions Maria Salgado spoke with the high school students about how to make their application stand out. Oftentimes, the personal insight questions are a way to expand on a talent, hobby, success or defining experience that cannot be conveyed in data and transcripts alone. 

“Our goal is to teach high school students how to write their story in a multi-vocal way to accentuate different windows of their life, conveying how they have found sources of empowerment through the obstacles they may have faced.”
Gerardo Arellano, director of the Raza Resource Centro
Two high school seniors from Madison High School pose together under a tree in Town Square at UC San Diego.
UC Insights participants Yeabsira Legesse and Lilyana Mendez, both seniors at Madison High School.

“I love my job and love individualizing each application, making sure I’ve given the time to each applicant to extract what I need to make that recommendation,” said Salgado. “I encourage students to personalize each question, paint us a picture of who they are. This is an opportunity for them to share their achievements and goals.”

Madison High School senior Lilyana Mendez chose to focus on her talent for creative writing in one of her answers. She shared that her storytelling began when her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Confined to a bed in a gloomy hospital room, Mendez yearned to sweep her away into a world of fantasy full of talking trees and birds. Each weekend she would write her a story to help her cope.

“Before she passed, she told me to publish my stories in a book,” said Mendez. “Since then, I thought maybe I am good at this. I'm doing this for her. It's inspired me. Last year I entered a creative writing contest with 800 contestants, and I won second place. I love it, it's a good hobby.”

When Oct. 1 arrived and the UC application opened, Mendez had a hard time getting started. “I decided to take part in this event because I was so confused and so stressed out,” said Mendez, who is an aspiring lawyer. “I didn't know where to start because I thought they were full essays but they were short essays. This program really helped. All the mentors were super nice. They put everything into perspective. I feel much better now.”

The UC application closed on Nov. 30. Now, UC San Diego’s Admission officers as well as more than 200 application readers are poised to begin delving into the unique stories of our future Tritons. Newly admitted students will be welcomed next spring at Triton Days.

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