When Associate Director for Educational Equity and Access for the Calvin E. Bright Success Center Alejandro Delgadillo announced his plans for retirement earlier this year in a social media post, there was an outpouring of felicitations and appreciation from current and former students he has mentored.
“Your dedication and sincerity are what will keep UC Merced a hub for first-generation students seeking higher education. We are forever indebted to you!”
“I am honored to have met you and to be able to call you my hero in education. Thank you for being a beacon of hope for myself and so many students at UC Merced.”
“The impact you leave will be enormous and irreplaceable! The UC Merced first generation community is forever indebted to you.”
Delgadillo is retiring this month after 24 years serving students in the University of California system — including more than 15 years of service to UC Merced — and 30 years in higher education total.
Delgadillo, who was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, immigrated to Oxnard with his mother at an early age. They eventually settled in Santa Monica.
Like the students he has served, he was a first-generation college student and earned a bachelor’s degree in political sciences at UCLA while volunteering with nonprofits that served incarcerated youth, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and kids who were sexually and physically abused. He went on to work for several of those groups before deciding to go to graduate school, where he studied social work at Michigan State. He later switched fields and earned a master’s degree in College and University Administration.
Prior to joining UC Merced, he was director of Campus Orientation and assistant director of Admissions at UC Santa Cruz for nearly eight years. His first position out of grad school was as resident director at UC Davis before becoming the coordinator for Leadership Development at Kansas State University. That was followed by two years as associate dean of students at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Then he went back to working with nonprofits in Los Angeles for several years before returning to higher education at Santa Cruz and Merced.
We sat down with Delgadillo to hear about his time at the youngest UC campus and the programs he helped build for underrepresented students.
When did you join UC Merced and what was it like on campus back then?
I was hired as the associate director of Admissions in November 2007, and I was responsible for recruitment and outreach.
A few months prior, then-Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Kevin Browne came to my office at UC Santa Cruz, placed a job description on my desk and said I should apply for the position. Kevin was my former supervisor at Santa Cruz, and he was at UC Merced. My first question was “what's the position?” and my second question was “where's Merced?”
Kevin responded, “We're building a UC campus with first-generation students; the students you advocate for all the time.” So, he had me interested at that point.
So, I applied and later went to the campus for an interview.
When I started, UC Merced hadn’t met its enrollment targets the first two years. So, I sat down with Dustin Noji, who was overseeing our transfer programs at the time, to brainstorm what we could do differently than the previous two years. We attracted good students who were interested in UC Merced, but we had to get them to come. We thought, “what if we met in-person with the students who had been admitted to UC Merced as admissions notifications were going out, especially schools in the San Joaquin Valley, and personally congratulated them?”
That’s exactly what we did that spring. We went to schools where we had high applications and admissions rates in the previous two years. We worked with counselors and gave them the roster of students we admitted from their schools, and they would arrange a space and time for us to meet with the students.
I remember going to a school in Tracy and there were 20 plus students. I introduced myself and said, “I’m here to congratulate you on your admission to the University of California, Merced.” This young woman started to cry, and I asked her, “Are you alright?” She said, “I’m fine. I’m going to be the first person in my family to go to college.”
When I was at Watsonville High School that same year, the counselor asked me what I was doing there. I explained I was there to meet with the admitted students. She said, “That’s incredible!” The students came into the classroom, and I told them they had been admitted and I wanted to answer any questions they had and make them aware of upcoming dates like Bobcat Day. The counselor must have told the teacher who was teaching class in the room next what was happening because the students coming to class formed two lines and started applauding those who were walking out.
In that moment, I knew it was the right approach to take. It was cool having those kinds of responses to the visits. When we personalized the experiences, we saw a significant rise in students accepting their admission to UC Merced. We were not only meeting our targets, but we were exceeding them. It said a lot about UC Merced — you can come to a UC campus where people will know who you are.
What are you most proud of during your time at UC Merced?
I am most proud of the programs that we have created.
When I transitioned to the Calvin E. Bright Success Center in August 2014, the position was created to develop Services for Undocumented Students. We started with 119 and now support about 600 undergraduate and graduate undocumented students.
enhance undocumented students’ career development and readiness we created, in partnership with Brian O’Bruba from the Student Career Center, a seven-week UndocuScholar Academy that focused on career options such as applying to graduate and professional school, writing resumes, interviewing skills and more. We implemented the UndocuAlly Training series each semester to enhance faculty and staff’s allyship for undocumented students. As a compliment, we also initiated the UndocuPeer Training for students and student organization. In the first year, we reached out to UC Davis’s Martin Luther King Jr. School of Law to explore the possibility of being able to refer our undocumented students to their Immigration Center for legal assistance. Months later, the dean of the school of law submitted a proposal that would initiate the UC-wide UC Immigration Legal Services Center providing free legal services for undocumented students at each of the 10 UC campuses.
Over time, the Guardian Scholars program, which now supports 103 former foster and homeless youth, and Fiat Lux, a program to support first-generation students on campus, which currently has 298 students, were moved under my supervision.
From there, we created the Community Partnership Program with the help of External Relations. I had a collaboration with College Track since I started working at UC Santa Cruz in 2000. It wasn’t formal but they would ask me to talk to parents of undocumented students. They knew there was someone there that their students could come to and get help from, and that was me. When I joined UC Merced, College Track started referring their students to Merced and they eventually signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) as a Community Partner with us and we manage support services for their students, assist them with academic concerns, and mutually intervene with each student, sometimes beyond the academics.
At this point, we have 23 partnerships throughout the state, comprising 591 students. We also have a pending MOU with a consortium of 43 nonprofit organizations called the Northern California College Promise Coalition, four of which have already partnered with us for a few years. Under the agreement, the organization must provide a college advisor on their end, and we will monitor their students’ progress, host workshops and presentations, hold orientation for them in the fall and submit progress reports to the organizations. We also provide pre-college admission workshops such as personal insight questions, UC applications, applying as an undocumented student and how to distinguish oneself on the UC application. This has helped us in developing relationships with these students before they even begin at UC Merced.
Two years ago we established, in partnership with UC Berkeley, the Bobcat Underground Scholars (BUS) program, to assist our formerly incarcerated and system impacted scholars. Because of my background volunteering with incarcerated youth, we took a different approach than other campuses who focus on adult students who were incarcerated. We support scholars who were incarcerated as adults, as well as those who were incarcerated as minors through the California Youth Authority, and students who come from families who have been system impacted by incarceration.
We’ve gotten a lot of recognition from organizations and schools whose students we support, students with whom we built this university. Our graduation and retention rates are much higher than the campus averages.
What is your advice for students?
There’s no disgrace in failing. As long as you convert every failure or disappointment into three successes, you’re learning. If you keep repeating the same thing, you’re not learning.
Every fall, when I meet with our different cohorts of first-year students, I tell them about when I was academically dismissed after my first quarter of undergraduate studies at UCLA. My first thought when this happened was, “what am I going to tell my family?” Then it evolved into being angry at myself for letting this happen because I didn’t take it seriously.
When I see the look on the students’ faces when I tell them that story, I say to them, “I do not tell you this story to scare you, I tell you this story so that you do not let it happen to you.” I go on to tell them about resources like the Ombuds Office. When I got dismissed, I didn’t know what to do. I went to my academic advisor, and they said there was nothing I could do. I went to another office and another. I decided I wasn’t going to go home and tell my family I got kicked out of UCLA without trying to do something about it. Then someone suggested I go talk to the Ombuds Office and I said, “What’s that?” I was told that is where you go to get help to solve your problems. I go to the office and there’s this gentleman named Don Hartsock, who asked me “Have you talked to your faculty?” I replied, “No,” and he said, “Well, why don’t you talk to your faculty and see if they will change your grades?” So, I did, and two of the three faculty did, and it was enough to get me on academic probation the next quarter. Then, two years later, I graduated. One of those professors, Ray Rocco, was the one who later encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree.
Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Pat Bosco at Kansas State taught me to remember one thing about every student I meet. “Whether it’s their name, last name, hometown, major or if they have siblings, that will help that student feel that they stand out.” And that has always stayed with me, so I tell all the students I’ve trained over the years this advice and that it’s not only a great attribute to have in their position but also in life. Because it makes people feel special.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Since I was 10 years old, I dreamed of playing football at UCLA. When I graduated from high school, I went to the football coach at the local community college, and I told him I wanted to try out for the football team. He looked at me and smirked. It was competitive, and he shot me down right there and then. So, I thought if I can’t make it at community college, I can’t make it at UCLA. When I got to UCLA, I had a class with four guys who were on the football team. I told them I wish I had been recruited. They looked at me and said, “Why don’t you try out for the team? You could be a walk-on.” I went to football coach Terry Donahue’s office to track him down. He wasn’t there, but as I was leaving, I saw him in the parking lot. I said, “Coach Donahue, can I talk to you for a second?” I introduced myself and told him I played in high school and wanted to see about walking onto the team. He said, “OK, so be here on this date and we will give you a uniform and a physical and see what you can do.” He didn’t laugh at me or tell me I didn’t have a shot. The interesting thing is that Terry Donahue played on the UCLA football team that inspired me to want to play football at UCLA. In the Rose Bowl, they had been underdogs against Michigan State, and they beat them. I remember the announcers referring to the team as the “Gutty Little Bruins.” That was a moniker I identified with because in high school I remember my coach saying, “Alex, if I give you the ball, you aren’t going to give me 60 yards in one play. But if I give you the ball 10 times, you’ll get me 60 yards.”
When I talk to students about coming to college, I tell them it’s not just about the educational part in the classroom, it’s also about fulfilling the dreams that you have. And college can do that! While I didn’t end up playing for UCLA, because I later hurt my knee, I did fulfill my dream by just trying.