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High School Program Offers Free College Credits at UC San Diego

In June 2023, hundreds of San Diego high school students participated in Discover UC San Diego.

A stylized image of a young woman standing at a podium with her hands clasped
Gabriella Salas, a student at Hoover High School, earned college credit through Discover UC San Diego. Photo: Erika Johnson

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Summer Scholars.”

It takes courage to start something new and tenacity to persevere, especially if the outcome is unknown. But in the end, the challenge is worth it — especially if it means earning college credit. 

In June 2023, hundreds of San Diego high school students participated in Discover UC San Diego, an innovative pilot program that offers free, online college courses delivered by the university’s faculty. 

When Gabriella Salas, a student at Hoover High School, first read the course description for “Ethnic Studies: Land and Labor,” she was unsure what to expect. She had never taken a college-level class.

“I gained a broader perspective of the world and other communities outside of my own,” says Salas. “By the end of this course, I learned to not always doubt myself and how to properly manage my  time.”

Beyond learning about a new subject, students in the program also gain insights about their own interests that may help them choose an academic major when applying to college. And the credits earned are transferable to any university accepting UC San Diego credits, which may shorten the time it takes them to ultimately complete their degree. 

Discover UC San Diego is part of the university’s collective impact approach where multiple experts come together to execute a shared vision. The program is a partnership between the Office for Educational Innovation, Division of Extended Studies and the Teaching & Learning Commons. The spark for this innovative initiative occurred when the team realized that not every high school in San Diego offers honors or Advanced Placement courses — which give students a jump-start on college. Without access to these advanced high school courses, some students are unintentionally left behind because they are less competitive than their peers at other, better-funded schools. Discover UC San Diego may help students level up and change their entire academic trajectory. 

More than 120 students from the San Diego Unified School District enrolled in one of three courses offered in the pilot: “Ethnic Studies: Land and Labor,” “The Atmosphere,” and “Intro to Computer Science.” Each class was taught by UC San Diego faculty and developed to be accessible to high school students while maintaining the rigors of a college course that current undergraduates would enroll in. 

For Kimmy Dang, a student at Crawford High School, enrolling in “The Atmosphere” opened up a whole new way of seeing the world. “I learned about clouds and aerosols, balancing terrestrial and solar radiation, precipitation — topics that I could not have imagined touching upon in my high school education,” she says. 

And for UC San Diego professors, the experience was equally fulfilling and inspiring. “I really enjoyed the energy, insight and creativity that the students of San Diego brought to the course,” says Lynn Russell, professor of atmospheric chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who taught the program’s inaugural atmosphere course. 

After a successful pilot, the team plans to scale up the program with additional course offerings to include a course in American Sign Language and more opportunities to learn in real time. Ultimately, the team hopes to expand the program across San Diego and Imperial Valley counties, improving access to education for even more local students. 

Learn more about Discover UC San Diego at

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Summer Scholars.”

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