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A trip to UCLA: Supporting middle schoolers’ college aspirations

by Kali Nguyen on Dec 1, 2016

Back when I was in high school at the California Academy of Math and Science at Carson, Calif., my math teacher, Dr. Manuel Arellano, raised funds for and organized college tours that had a significant impact on me. On one we visited Cal State and UC schools near Los Angeles (I still remember how impressed I was by the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, where the director explained their research), and on another we checked out northern California schools like Stanford. Then on one extensive two-week-long trip, we went by bus from LA to New York, visiting colleges including Northwestern, DePaul, Kenyon College and Columbia University — an eye-opening experience for a kid like me from southern California. Largely thanks to the exposure of those tours, I wound up at Cal Poly Pomona, where I studied Computer Information Systems — a first building block in my career as an engineer. You could say that that exposure, way back then, started me down the path to where I am now: a senior operations engineer overseeing a multi-region, multi-cloud infrastructure that performs billions of mobile hits per day.

Dr. Arellano continued his informal college tour program for years, which had an incredible impact on hundreds of students. After the program was on hiatus for ten years, however, I saw an opportunity to give back: I contacted Dr. Arellano and offered to leverage AppLovin’s generous donation matching program to help fund a reboot of the college tour project. Doing so made particular sense once I learned that the school where he is now college counselor, Dana Middle School in San Pedro, CA, opened a Science and Technology Engineering Arts Math (STEAM) magnet program three years ago, and hundreds of students are now enrolled in it.

ucla_trip

A UCLA senior fills Dana Middle School students in on what life is like on campus.

So this past week, I had the honor of joining 64 high-performing 8th graders from Dana Middle School in San Pedro, CA, where Dr. Arellano now works as a college counselor, on a visit to UCLA. We learned that UCLA has the smallest campus but the largest student population of all the UCs, and that it has won more national titles than any other college in the country. They were particularly excited to see the office — the birthplace of the internet! — where in 1969 Leonard Kleinrock sent the first message over ARPANET.

Dana Middle School’s students reflect the diversity of the greater Los Angeles Area — nearly three-quarters of the students are Hispanic — but many of them also face significant obstacles as they go about planning their futures: 7 out of 10 students there participate in the federal free or reduced lunch program. More than half of the kids who attended the college tour will be the first in their families to attend college. It feels really good to help support them in that endeavor, especially the ones who are interested in STEAM, just as I was at that age.

Thank you notes from the students are already rolling in, and it’s so gratifying to read them. One student noted how much she enjoyed learning about all the different majors at UCLA, another noted that the trip inspired her to go to UCLA, and another said the experience “opened my eyes about my future.”

This trip to UCLA was such a success that Dr. Arellano and I are continuing our partnership: we’ve got a tour at alma mater Cal Poly Pomona planned for December and a visit to Cal slated for April, again for students from Dana Middle School. It really feels great to give back in a way that echoes my own experience all those years ago. I know that these visits to colleges can help these students to understand that if they continue to work hard, a college education — and a great career using STEAM skills and knowledge — is within reach. I’m so glad to work for a company that matches employees’ donations so the charitable impact is multiplied, and I look forward to finding out where the students wind up for college, and what they study.

Kali Nguyen is a senior operations engineer at AppLovin.

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