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By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM


Academic Advancement Program celebrates 35 years

The first in her family to graduate from college, pediatrician and medical-school administrator Daphne Calmes '78, M.D. '84, M.S. '96 credits the UCLA Academic Advancement Program (AAP) with easing her transition from small-town life in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to big-city university. When she came to Westwood in the late '70s, AAP was just getting started but even then, "they were really a strong source of support," she says. "They were like an anchor."

When a regular UCLA counselor questioned Calmes' high school science background and discouraged her from majoring in biology, "the AAP counselor said, 'Let’s figure out how you can do this,' " she recalls. That experience stayed with her.

"I learned valuable lessons from the AAP program that I use in my job today," says Calmes, now an associate dean at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

Calmes has a lot of company, all Bruins, all leaders, all helped by AAP — now the largest and most successful university student academic diversity program in the United States. And on February 28, they and many others like them will help UCLA celebrate the AAP’s 35th anniversary.

The organization has come a long way since its inception, when it was created to increase access for underrepresented students, many admitted through affirmative action, with an emphasis on keeping them in school. One huge watershed was the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which eliminated race as a factor in public-university admissions, and prompted more innovative thinking about AAP's mission.

"In some ways, 209 made it possible for us to say, 'Every single person is here because they earned it, and you have the capacity to excel and not just to graduate,'" says Judith Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education. "What we wanted to focus on was the notion that AAP students were really the next leaders, the next generation of scholars and doctors."

Today, AAP's Campbell Hall headquarters bustles with undergraduates drawn from the campus' 6,600 low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students, who come to take advantage of staff and peer counselors, learning workshops, scholarships, research opportunities and graduate mentor programs. Students such as Andrew Demirchyan, son of Armenian immigrants and a first-generation college student.

Demirchyan was thrilled when he got accepted to UCLA. He was also apprehensive. So when he discovered AAP's Freshman Summer Program (FSP), which exposes incoming freshmen to the demands of academic life before they become full-time students, he jumped at the opportunity. "I’ve used everything that AAP's got to offer," says Demirchyan, and it’s paid off in a big way — with a three-year Wilson Academic Advancement Scholarship, awarded to academically strong students committed to community service and a postgraduate education. And the junior political science major is already working on a second degree: As a UCLA Honors Program Departmental Scholar, he will earn a master's with his bachelor's degree.

But AAP isn't just for kids. As a transfer student in her 30s who had spent most of her adult life in the workforce, Rosanne Lopez '07 felt out of place at UCLA — until she tagged along with a friend seeking a job as an AAP peer counselor and ended up landing the position herself.

"It was like a godsend," says the Riverside, Calif., native. "Somebody opened up a huge door that allowed me to learn about all these services and find out what was available at UCLA. And to be able to help others [like me] was such an amazing opportunity."

In the process, she found her passion: education. "I'm going to continue and get my Ph.D.," says Lopez, who's working on her master's degree in education at UCLA. "I know I won't be happy until I'm Dr. Lopez."

"Its success has been its students, primarily," says Charles Alexander, director of AAP and associate vice provost for student diversity. "It really projects and demonstrates excellence — taking UCLA's best and making them better."

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