Every year, Student Success Initiatives (SSI) offers programs, services, and resources that support UCI’s diverse student body. As a unit, we are committed to creating equitable and inclusive environments for students of all backgrounds. In addition to helping our students with academic achievement and professional development, we also help them build communities of support. Because college can feel like an overwhelming and lonely place, we work hard to ensure that every student who comes to us has a team of friends and mentors that they can rely on. 

When you support SSI, you are empowering the success of UCI’s incredible students—students like Maria Isabel Ramos Martinez. To see how you can help us transform the lives of deserving students, we invite you to read Isabel’s story.

My name is Isabel, and I am a fourth-year majoring in psychology. However, these facts alone do not tell you who I am or what has shaped me. They are just a small part of my story.

I grew up in a small, low-income community in California’s Central Valley with an overworked mom and two younger brothers. My biological father left the country when I was a little girl, and I haven’t seen him since. However, after living through his drug use and the domestic violence he inflicted on my family, you could say him leaving was for the best. Ultimately, my father’s abuse followed by his permanent absence taught me to be the strong woman that I am today.

When I was younger, education was not a priority for me. Because my mother was always busy trying to support us, she was not around for my childhood. This forced me to grow up quickly, and I learned to cook, clean, look after my brothers, and be independent. When I was in middle school, things changed for the better. My mom had met someone who took care of us, we moved to a bigger city, and I finally had the time to focus on school. It was my 7th-grade teacher who first told me that I was smart and could do big things, and I started to believe it.

Unfortunately, this newfound stability could not last. When I was eleven years old, I was molested by someone I trusted, and my mom, brothers, and I had to start all over again.

While this time was painful for me, I was old enough to compartmentalize my traumatic experience and be resilient. Through all of this, my love of school never wavered. I graduated high school and was accepted at UCI.

At first, life at UCI was a bit of a culture shock, and I had trouble relating to my classmates. However, three things happened during my first year that shaped my life and my path at UCI. First, I found my community at UCI in the Student Success Initiatives (SSI) office through programs like DREAM Scholars.

Through the DREAM Scholars program, I met people like Blanca Villagomez, who helped me feel welcome and cherished on campus. The people there cared about me, checked-in with me, gave me help (and continue to do so to this day), and made me feel as though I could succeed at UCI. I can’t overstate how the simple act of SSI telling me that I was welcome in their offices made a difference in me accepting UCI as my new home.

The second event that shaped my path was I became part of the Latinx Student Psychological Association (LSPA). Not only did this group align with my interest in becoming a counselor, but it also introduced me to Dr. Jeanett Castellanos. Since my first year, I have worked under Dr. Castellano as Lead Researcher in her lab, which has given me a clear direction on how I can make a career out of my desire to provide support and services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The last life-changing event I experienced during my freshman year was that I became pregnant with my son. As someone that has always had a deep faith, I took it to heart when my mom would tell me that everything happens for a reason. And my son is a constant blessing and reminder of those words.

You would think that it would be close to impossible to raise a baby, go to college, and remain on track to pursue your dreams. I won’t lie and say it has been easy, as there have been and continue to be many roadblocks. But I always remember that my goal from SSI’s DREAM Scholars was to become a fearless woman by the time I graduated from UCI.

Over the past three years, I have managed to accomplish so much. I remain the Lead Researcher for Dr. Castellanos and also work as the Lead Research Assistant in another lab. I continue to contribute as a DREAM Scholars Peer Mentor and Peer Life Coach for the Creating Options and Conquering Hurdles (COACH) Program at the UCI Counseling Center. I am also a proud member of SSI’s Student Parents and Families Program.

I know that I could not have done any of this without the help of my family at SSI. The belief they had in me, the way they kept me on track with school, and the community they welcomed me into changed my life. Not only have they supported my professional growth by offering career resources, workshops, and events, but they have also assisted my personal growth, such as updates to my DACA status. These are all moments that I will be forever grateful for.

This is why I do so much. I want to give back to SSI a little of what they have given to me.

While I will be graduating in a few months, I am still far from accomplishing my goal of becoming a fearless woman. However, armed with the support, tools, and knowledge I gained throughout my time at UCI, my path towards this lifelong goal has never been clearer.

You are part of Isabel’s story.

While Isabel’s determination and resilience are an inspiration, she is one of thousands that come through SSI’s offices every year.

Every student’s journey is different. And SSI is here, every single day, to respond to the unique needs of every Anteater. Thanks to alumni and friends that make a commitment to SSI, we are proud to provide support, care, love, and help to over 3,000 students that need it the most.

Financial support allows us to continue offering a range of services and over 13 distinct programs for first-generation students, transfer students, foster youth, under-resourced students, and many more. Give a gift to SSI here or contact Matt Princetta, Director of Development, Student Success at mprincet@uci.edu.