Shelby SmithTo say Shelby Smith embodies the UC Irvine School of Social Sciences’ boundaryless spirit would be an understatement. From experiential learning trips abroad to mentorship meetings with aspiring first-generation Anteaters, the senior social policy and public service major has been putting UCI research and principles into practice in classrooms from Irvine to Israel.

“UC Irvine has given us each the world through the people, classes, clubs, travels, and even our online classes,” she says. “The degree we receive from the School of Social Sciences is not just a recognition of our studies, but truly a map of all the places we have been.”

In June, Smith will be one of only two social sciences undergraduates to speak at the school’s 2021 commencement ceremony, which, due to COVID, will be delivered remotely. For a graduating class that’s shown its resiliency as courses, connections and communities comprising every time zone shifted fully online, her message rings particularly true: some of the best classrooms don’t have four walls.  

Paving her path

Growing up in the Bay area, Smith’s parents – neither of whom had the opportunity to attend a university – ensured Shelby had access to the best educational support.

“Investing in my education was very important to my parents,” she says. “The opportunities my schools provided me with advanced courses and college prep gave me the chance to pursue college and kickstart my initial career plan to be a history teacher.”

Smith had her pick of the 13 schools to which she applied and was accepted. UCI topped the list due to its numerous resources aimed at first-generation students like her and experiential learning programs that would expand her education beyond the classroom. Her acceptance letter sealed the deal when, among the enclosed list of notable UCI alumni, she saw a familiar name: Erin Gruwell, founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation.

“Erin was a hero of mine early on,” says Smith. “I’ve read all of her books and watched everything about her, so to then see her name on a list of alumni for a school I was already excited to attend was just an amazing moment that cemented my decision to become an Anteater.”

During her first college quarter, she got to meet her hero at an alumni panel where Gruwell’s enthusiasm and excitement for making a difference was infectious.

“I sat front and center on the edge of my seat through her entire talk, soaking up every word,” she says. She stuck around after to meet the activist who had inspired her decision to pursue UCI and a career in education, and the two connected. Smith was invited to Gruwell’s Long Beach home for Dinners with Anteaters, an alumni networking engagement series fostered by the campus Alumni Association. By the next quarter, Smith was interning with the Freedom Writers Foundation where she engaged regularly with teachers from around the world and learned firsthand the role activism and movements play in shaping equity and access to education.

A policy-oriented purpose

“Education has been such an important part of my life that’s allowed me to have access to opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Seeing in my own community that a lot of people I grew up with didn’t have the same opportunity to go to college – that their high schools didn’t set them up for that – breaks my heart,” she says. Through her work with Freedom Writers, that feeling intensified. “I want to be able to serve educational communities the way mine did for me growing up. I feel strongly that every student, regardless of their background, should be supported and their identities valued in the classroom.”

A friend suggested she check out the School of Social Sciences’ social policy and public service major where, in her first class with lecturer Corina Espinoza, Smith quickly discovered her interests aligned perfectly with the program’s policy-oriented purpose. She officially changed her major and signed up for every course Espinoza taught.

“Teaching in SPPS has allowed me to meet students like Shelby, who I believe have heightened levels of compassion and passion for the ‘public good’ and look for disciplines/majors, courses, and research that will elevate them to the level of change makers and servant leaders,” says Espinoza. “Shelby pursues tasks, goals, and achievement with rigor and vigor. As the song says, ‘Ain't no stoppin' us(her) now.’”

Through SPPS, Smith also crossed paths with Jeanett Castellanos, another faculty member who would become more than a mentor. As program director, Castellanos meets with each SPPS major early on to discuss the 300-hour field work and internship requirement so that students can begin thinking about how they’ll apply classroom knowledge in real world settings for non-profits and community organizations. Smith’s one-hour meeting ended up extending to two and she left with a complete four-year plan for UCI and graduate school thereafter.

“As a first-gen student, I didn’t know graduate school was an option or what it meant,” she says. “Dr. C helped me map out a plan for my future that I didn’t even know was possible. When I told my mom about her, she said ‘Don’t leave her side.’ And I didn’t.” Over her four-year career on the UCI campus, Castellanos helped Smith and classmates create a close-knit academic family among students and faculty within the major.

“We have such an amazing support group of scholars who care about equity, social justice and policy. Whether we were on campus in person or later on Zoom due to COVID, this academic family helped me persist, even more so when we moved online last year,” Smith says. “Navigating school online, completing bigger projects, and just coping with a new experience – I am so thankful to be part of a continually growing group of people who want to make a difference and who care about each other’s personal growth.”

Experiential education

With the Freedom Writers internship already under her belt her first year, Smith worked to expand her reach as an undergraduate mentor for her field studies course by getting involved with Upward Bound. The support program works to increase the college acceptance and completion rate of high school students from low-income families and/or students who are the first in their family to go on to a university. Over two years, Smith worked as an academic tutor and advisor with the organization, helping more than 70 students with college applications and core course concepts – information which guided her research paper on helps and hindrances to low-socioeconomic status first-gen Latinx high school students’ college aspirations.

She also got involved with the Olive Tree Initiative which took her abroad in 2019 to the Middle East where she connected with international teachers who shared their experiences as educators in a conflict zone. She continued these interviews remotely when she returned to the U.S. to craft her honors thesis on cultural pedagogy in Arab Israeli schools, which she will present at both the International Association for Intercultural Education and UROP conferences this spring, and for which she earned the Social Sciences Outstanding Honors Thesis Paper Prize. She has also been recognized as the school’s Rosten and Schonfeld scholarships recipient for her service on and off campus.

"Shelby is a student leader with countless hours of community service and an extensive list of leadership roles underscoring her ability to engage, manage, and collaborate,” says Castellanos.  “Passionate about making social change, Shelby is a student with personal investment in advocacy and leadership development. Given her performance, it’s clear she is ready to pursue graduate studies at a top university.”

When COVID closures pushed her education and experiences remote in March 2020, Smith didn’t see a hard stop to any of her activity. She leaned heavily into her academic family for support with late night Zoom sessions and repositioned her plans – which included a Barnes & Noble College Scholarship and Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation: Small Change, Better World grant to enact a project of change – to make an immediate difference in the lives of her Upward Bound students in Anaheim. With program funds, she purchased 10 Chromebooks for her highest need students and distributed $70 in supplies – computer mouses, scientific calculators, and more – to all 70 students.

“I’ve learned so much from other student leaders on campus who have guided me as a first-gen student, and I am honored to be able to help other students in the same way and go where there’s a need,” she says.

Adventures await

As her undergraduate experience and time as an Anteater comes to a close, Smith is excited about her next steps which include attending USC’s master’s in public policy program on a full ride scholarship and continuing to serve communities through applied research on educational access.

“I want to provide a space to bring out marginalized voices in education; these voices should be driving the change,” she says. After her master’s, she hopes to go on to a Ph.D. and become a professor so she can continue applying what she’s learned as an Anteater through her research, mentorship, and activism.

She’s also extremely honored to get to speak on behalf of – and to – her graduating colleagues.

“It’s a privilege to get to address a community that’s stood by me,” she says. “It’s been hard not seeing each other’s faces this past year in person, but our connections have remained strong, proving that our space together is more than a physical place and that our community will live on well past our time on campus.”

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences


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