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By Randi Schmelzer, Photos by Naomi Harris

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:00 AM


How do high-achieving students like James Franco take 60 credits in a quarter? Ask the UCLA counseling office, whose support of the scholar-actor exemplifies the university's commitment to help students at all academic levels.

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In many ways, James Franco '08 is the sort of student UCLA academic advisers work with every day.

True, not all undergrads are A-list celebrities: When Franco began taking classes again at UCLA in fall 2006 as an English major with a creative-writing concentration, the then-28-year-old, Palo Alto, Calif., native was already among the university's most high-profile students. Even then — before Milk, before Pineapple Express, before he'd hosted Saturday Night Live — obsessively popular roles in Freaks and Geeks and Spider-Man had instilled Franco in the Young Hollywood limelight; even more, his reputation as a high-IQ hunk spanned from gossip blogs to college campuses across America, and UCLA was no exception.

"Acting kind of worked out, at least to the extent that I could make a living at it," Franco admits, sounding almost embarrassed. "But after eight or nine years of that, I decided that I wanted something else."

That "something else" was a return to academia. And to achieve his intellectual goals — which included taking "a lot of classes" — Franco did what any ambitious student in need of educational guidance might do: He turned to the school's academic advisers.

"I wanted to get the most out of UCLA," Franco says. "[My advisers] really helped me make that happen."

Room at the Top

While "academic advising" may once have been shorthand for "learning difficulty center," today, counselors make things happen for students at all academic levels, says Penny Hein-Unruh, assistant vice provost of academic advising in UCLA College Academic Counseling. "You have a rare student who just reads the catalog, looks at the requirements [and] goes to classes," she says. "I've noticed a trend over the last number of years for students to seek help more readily and more often. I think this is a generation that is accustomed to getting what they need; however, they need to go and get it."

As is the case for many highly motivated students, solid academic planning was tops on Franco's initial list of needs. One example: Though the school has a 19-unit-per-quarter limit (anything above that must be approved by academic advising), "I wanted to take more classes than that," Franco says. "I wasn't going back to school just to get by with a little amount of work."

"More classes," is, perhaps, an understatement: During his time at UCLA, in fact, Franco's course load ranged from 20 to 62 credits per quarter, a tremendous amount in itself, and through much of which he continued to work on movies. (He also managed to maintain a GPA above 3.5.)

"[James'] was truly just a thirst for knowledge, a sense that 'I've waited this long, I'm going to take advantage of everything, I don't want to miss anything,'" Hein-Unruh recalls.

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A thirst for knowledge is, not surprisingly, not unusual among high-achievers. But just because a top-tier Bruin undergrad expresses genuine passion, he or she doesn't have course-credit carte blanche. As Hein-Unruh reminds, the unit cap is put in place in part to ensure that resources are available for all students to meet their academic goals and degree requirements.

"There's clearly not one easy answer," she says. "There are a lot of things to take into consideration: What's your motivation? Is this something you can be successful at? Are there enough hours in the day?"

Hein-Unruh notes that in her typical consideration process, she also makes sure that extra-unit requests include a range of academic programs: classes, independent studies, travel abroad programs. "It's easier often for a student to be successful in a higher number of units if there's some variation," she explains. "If [Franco] had been in seven upper-division English courses, that would not have been workable."

Though Franco acknowledges his overwhelming course loads left him unable to get much sleep or enjoy any kind of social life — "You can't even say hello to anybody," he half-jokes — in the end, Hein-Unruh says, his motivation won her over. "He had very clear, legitimate academic goals that he was trying to meet," he says.

"In Penny's defense," Franco adds, "it took a couple of weeks [to persuade her]. I really had to beg her and convince her that I could really handle the workload."

The Path Finders

But academic advising isn't just a glorified balancing-credits act. It's also a resource to help students select the right academic paths and set them on course for postgraduate studies.

"Building counseling relationships is not only important, it's important to do it early on," says Alison Nickerson M.A. '80, director of counseling, Honors Programs, at UCLA. "The earlier you form some good, solid counseling-mentoring relationships, the more options the counselor has to give you. The later it gets in your academic career, the more the options start to close down."

Franco, for example, also worked closely with English department faculty adviser Janel Munguia M.A. '85 while at Westwood. Like other departmental advisers, Munguia was always on hand to offer the young scholar/actor counsel regarding major-related requirements, provide curriculum advice and discuss opportunities within the English department. It was Munguia, in fact, who set Franco on track to write his departmental honors thesis with faculty member Mona Simpson, a novel that he says is "really shaping up" after two years.

And it was Munguia who pushed her gifted charge to submit his poetry to contests, including the 2008 May Merrill Miller Poetry Awards. Franco presented his piece — which won an Honorable Mention — at a group reading at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum last June.

Where Credit Is Due

All this is a far cry from Franco's first attempt at academia. That was as a UCLA undergrad back in 1996, which ended when he traded residence hall life and English lit classes for low-paying food-service gigs and a shot at acting (that just happened to pay off). Unlike that initial experience with higher education, Franco's more recent effort resulted in a well-deserved diploma: a bachelor's of English, awarded in June 2008.

In the fall, Franco went on to enroll in three New York-based master's programs; he's currently attending Columbia University's M.F.A. writing program; Brooklyn College for creative writing; and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for directing. And you may have noticed that his acting career is going pretty well.

After all, Franco says, he couldn't have accomplished so much at UCLA without the help of his academic advisers, especially Hein-Unruh and Munguia.

Even when he thinks "about just collapsing" under his triple-threat academic schedule, Franco is adamant that after surviving the rigors of a UCLA degree, he can do just about anything. And that's a message he might choose to share with the next generation of UCLA graduates (as well as his old friends from the university's academic advising unit) when he returns to campus yet again this spring — to give the keynote commencement speech to the College of Letters and Science's Class of 2009.

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