School hasn't always been easy for Suleika Zepeda. Her family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was in fifth grade, but her English skills at the time were at a kindergarten level.  
"It was frustrating to go from being a great student in Mexico to being one of the lowest in my U.S. classroom, just because I couldn't understand the language," she says. She got through the work by memorizing what the teachers and students said, wrote and did. It wasn't until high school that her English skills and what she was learning in the classroom began to sync.  
With help from her teachers and mentors, she persevered and earned a full ride Gates Millennium Scholarship allowing her to come to UCI. Now a junior, she, like many university students, has been grappling with what to do after she finishes college. Hoping to find some direction, she enrolled in the School of Social Sciences' rigorous Summer Academic Enrichment Program (SAEP).  
Led by Caesar Sereseres, social sciences undergraduate associate dean, and a crew of 10 UCI faculty, graduate students and staff, the five-week research intensive program is designed to help students develop advanced research, analytic, communication and quantitative skills. The program is delivered in a seminar-based, collaborative learning style format in order to give students a glimpse of what they can expect to encounter in graduate school - a route more than two-thirds of the past 320 SAEP grads have taken.  
The participants, a majority of whom are first generation university students, live on campus and put in an average of 18-20 hours per day - weekends included - studying and completing the coursework.  
"I knew SAEP was going to be a tough program, but one that everyone said is worth the work," says Suleika, adding that it held up to its reputation. "One of the key things about SAEP is that is helps you find something you're passionate about." For her, it was reconnecting with her Latin American roots.  
"One of the books we were required to read focused on our responsibility as educated citizens to give back, and it made me realize that as a Latina university student, I am getting an educational experience that not many in my situation ever get." Beginning in the fall, she plans to start working with Latino youth to help them develop their own university aspirations. She also hopes to continue the research she began in SAEP on drug policy, trafficking and cross border relations so that she can make a lasting impact on both her Mexican and American communities.  
Suleika's positive experience in SAEP is one of a number of success stories to come out of this year's class who, on July 24, celebrated completion of their program in a formal, emotional ceremony at UC Irvine's University Club. They mark the eighteenth class to have completed the program since it's inception in 1992.  
"SAEP helped us get connected with a great network of people - students, faculty and staff - who, in addition to our families, really support and believe in us. It showed us there are so many different paths we can take to making a difference that now, instead of no direction, I have the good problem of figuring out just which path I want to take, and that feels really great."  
View pictures of the SAEP class of 2009's five-week journey and learn more about the program online at

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