SAEP group photo

Long Bui in the classroom as SAEP director.Since its launch in 1991, the Summer Academic Enrichment Program (SAEP) has served as one of UCI’s premier undergraduate research programs. Housed within the School of Social Sciences, the five-week, eight-unit program designed to enhance the academic experience of first-generation and Pell grant receiving college students has been a launchpad that’s propelled Anteaters to graduate school under the watchful guidance of its founder, professor emeritus Caesar Sereseres.

In 2020, Long Bui, UCI associate professor of global and international studies and SAEP alumnus, took the reins as director. Under his leadership, the program has built on its rich history of success while expanding to support more students from different majors by offering a focus on new research methodologies. Perhaps the program’s biggest shift: the removal of the residential requirement for participation.

"When I took over the program in 2020, it was the start of the pandemic, so the residential, in-person component wasn’t really possible,” says Bui. That change, he says, allowed the program to open up to students who might be parents or who have other responsibilities and couldn’t commit to living on campus and attending all-day classes.

“We now have morning classes, seminar style,” he says. “I also added a qualitative methods class - in addition to the program’s quantitative focus - to give students more options to pursue other kinds of research like archives, oral history, and ethnography."

Expanding the program beyond its residential roots has been a critical component for rising non-traditional scholars who want to pursue graduate studies, like Michelle Story, a first-generation, fourth-year psychology major and psychological sciences minor, who was in the 2023 cohort. The 35-year-old mother of four applied to SAEP because she wanted to pursue research on mental health and wellbeing and work with her professors more closely.

“I was in the cohort for quantitative research, so I had to become familiar with public datasets,” she says. “It was difficult, and we had to move quickly.”

The program is fast paced, which means students have to quickly conceptualize a research question, look for publicly available data or gather their own, conduct the analysis, and present their findings to their peers.

“I'm interested in mental health, but it was hard for me to find public datasets that addressed mental health in part because it's a taboo topic,” she adds. “I was able to find a dataset to examine the influence of environmental racism on perceptions toward health and wellbeing to highlight associations with gender, race and ethnicity, and income."

Jaqueline Zuniga, a senior studying psychology, was also motivated to conduct research that involved mental health.

“As a Latina, mental health wasn't really talked about in my household, and I have met people who don't want to try counseling even though they could benefit from it,” she says. “I’ve been in therapy before, and it had such a positive impact on me that I wanted to learn as much as I could about psychology and what influences people's decisions.”

Zuniga’s research involved creating her own data from a questionnaire that she designed to examine how socioeconomic status, cultural barriers, and racial and gender norms impact mental health in the Latinx community. She was able to get 52 participants to answer her questionnaire.

Practical planning for graduate school

Beyond the immersive research experience, SAEP also offers practical advice on the graduate school application process with expert tips on how to navigate funding, costs, and expectations for earnings.

Ami Yamamoto, a junior double majoring in psychology and criminology and member of the 2023 SAEP cohort, credits the program with helping her develop a clear graduate plan. 

"I want to do a Ph.D. program, but what I have learned is that it's very competitive to get in directly from undergrad,” says Yamamoto. Acting on information gleaned from her SAEP experience, she has a multipronged plan. “If I don't get into graduate school right after completing my undergrad from UCI, I will look at employment opportunities and then re-apply to get into a program where I'm funded."

Historically, first-generation students tend to take on more debt in pursuing their undergraduate degrees, so costs can factor more prominently when it comes to pursuing a graduate degree, Bui says. In addition, SAEP participants learn more about what to expect in terms of lifestyle and socializing in a graduate program.

“I also implemented a professionalization class in SAEP that covers topics like personal statements and financial literacy and life-work balance, before a student goes to graduate school, so they understand the costs and what kind of salaries they might expect from pursuing different paths,” says Bui.

With the completion of his third year at the helm, he’s looking forward to the opportunity to assess the program’s growth and imagine new possibilities for the coming year cohort.

For students interested in applying to the 2024 cohort, information and application workshops will be held throughout the academic year. Applications will open at the end of winter quarter 2024. SAEP is open to every major in the School of Social Sciences. There will be approximately 18-20 students in the next cohort. To learn more, visit the SAEP website.

-Adriana Maestas for UCI Social Sciences
-pictured: SAEP 2023 cohort; Long Bui, director. Courtesy of Luis Fonseca, UCI Social Sciences.

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