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UCLA center helps community college students transfer

Jendi Samai

Credit: Rebecca Kendall

As a high school student, Jendi Samai struggled personally and academically before finding her footing in community college. UCLA's Center for Community College Partnerships gave her the support she needed to transfer to UCLA, where she is helping other students succeed.

Being accepted at UCLA is more than just an opportunity to get an education from one of the best colleges in the world. For Jendi Samai, a transfer student from Chino Hills, it represented a chance to redeem herself in the eyes of her parents and become part of a vibrant campus community.

“I felt very much welcomed when I came here, and I knew that if I pushed myself I would be supported here,” said Samai, an English major whose transition from a community college to UCLA was guided by the university’s Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP).

This fall, Samai became one of roughly 3,100 transfer students who enrolled at UCLA, where transfer students represent one-third of all undergraduates, making them a major part of campus life and a population that UC Office of the President wants to bolster by widening the pipeline for their enrollment at UC.

“Transfer students represent some of the best students enrolled in higher education,” said Alfred Herrera, the center’s director and UCLA’s assistant vice provost of academic partnerships. He's also a member of UC President Janet Napolitano’s task force that is working to streamline the transfer process, increase outreach efforts, find more student resources and lobby state lawmakers for funding to admit more transfer students.

Currently, UC enrolls more community college transfer students than any other university of its caliber in the nation. “They come from a variety of backgrounds and communities, and those experiences are important contributions in the classroom and on campus,” said Herrera.

Herrera said more than 50 percent of Latino and African-American students who enroll in college are first enrolled in a community college, and that Native-American and Pacific-Islander students remain the most severely underrepresented in higher education.

Helping all transfers

Over the past 35 years, Herrera has helped thousands of community college students, predominantly from Los Angeles County, transfer to four-year colleges. A majority of these students — like Samai— come to UCLA. Others enroll at institutions, including, but not limited to, other UC and CSU campuses.

Herrera first met Samai in 2013 at a CCCP summer program called SITE LITE at UCLA and was immediately struck by her enthusiasm.

“Jendi was engaged and attentive. She sat in the front row and asked lots of questions,” said Herrera. “I was impressed with her articulate and thought-provoking questions. She was eager to learn what she needed to be a successful transfer student, and she maintained contact with me throughout the process.”

While at Mount San Antonio College, Samai joined the CCCP Scholars Program and improved her academic skills at its Saturday workshops held at UCLA. She also met with a peer mentor who helped her understand the transfer process. Weeks after graduating from community college last spring, she was already living on the UCLA campus and taking two classes on full scholarship as part of UCLA’s Transfer Summer Program, administered by the Academic Advancement Program (AAP), which houses CCCP and several other units. 

By the end of the summer, Samai had earned a 4.0 average, landed a job as a peer learning facilitator at the UCLA Writing Center, gained important academic skills and networked with people on campus.

A pathway to Westwood

While being a Bruin feels like a natural fit to Samai now, it was at one time unimaginable to her.

From an early age, Samai recognized the importance of education as she watched her parents, who came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, attend school during the day and work at night to advance their medical careers.

“We’ve always had that workaholic mentality,” said the English major. “For my parents, it was a matter of survival and wanting to do the very best for us; but for me, I felt distant from them. I struggled with my self-esteem and my confidence. They were always busy.”

By the time she was a sophomore in high school, Samai had dropped many of the extracurricular activities she had previously enjoyed, was failing her classes and making “poor personal choices."

“It was a time of self-hate,” Samai recalled. “What I was doing was not healthy — it was not productive. … My parents thought I was a failure.”

Finding her voice

But once enrolled in community college, she earned scholarships, presented research at conferences and made her way onto the president’s list for academic achievement. At a teacher's persistence, she auditioned for and then joined the school’s speech and debate team.

“I realized how important it was for me to share my voice,” said Samai.  Speaking on discrimination and violence in the transgender community, she won the title of “Southern California’s Most Persuasive Speaker” at the Interstate Oratorical Association National Tournament, the oldest speech competition in the country. And she went on to clinch an international debate award in Paris, France.

“Community college was really my second chance," she said. "When I got there, I took advantage of everything. I hustled. … I’ve always had this desire to show my parents that I wasn’t a failure and prove to myself that I am worthy and capable.”

Now at UCLA, Samai hopes to tap her communication skills to conduct research on intersecting issues of race, education, media and entertainment. She also aspires to mentor high school students, especially those from underrepresented groups, in their own pursuit of higher education.

 “Jendi has that natural ability to connect with students and families,” said Herrera. “I have encouraged her to work with AAP and CCCP and volunteer to help us work with prospective students to provide information and prepare them for the university.”

He said he takes pride in hearing about the success transfer students find after graduating from UCLA and becoming professionals in education, law, medicine and other fields.

“Higher education is a key factor in achieving social justice and success for students who come from first-generation communities,” said Herrera. “Equipping students with these tools not only helps them, but helps their families, their community and the world we live in. I am proud of students like Jendi, who develop the necessary skills to become successful, strong advocates for social justice.”