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A look at the inaugural class of the Anteater Leadership Academy

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UC Irvine introduced the Anteater Leadership Academy (ALA) program in June 2017 in an effort to “allow UCI to flex capacity to meet demand, accepting hundreds more California freshmen while helping to rein in escalating college costs.” 118 students were enrolled in its inaugural class at the beginning of fall 2017.

A UCI News release described the ALA program as “an innovative, affordable academic program that bundles the degree-related freshman curriculum with programs on leadership development and career preparation.”

The official reason for creating the ALA program was to solve the “unprecedented demand from college-bound Californians” and to “help support UCI’s long-term growth,” but students both within the ALA program and outside of it speculate another reason.

“From what I’ve heard, UCI over-admitted a lot of students and they kind of scrambled to put this program together to…just funnel them into [this program], so they could bypass that mistake,” said Andrew Saghir, an ALA biological sciences major. “That’s my understanding of why the program was created.”

According to the UCI News release, UCI received over 104,000 applications last year, third-highest among all universities in the nation. Matching the record-breaking number of applicants was a historically large incoming class. This growth spurred the creation of ALA. Announcing ALA’s launch last summer, Chancellor Howard Gillman wrote, “With this program, we are able to accommodate more students affordably without sacrificing the rigor and quality of a University of California education.”

While the program was offered only to California residents, it required that they live off-campus and forfeit any claims to financial aid. Benefits such as half-price tuition (around $2,105 per quarter versus the $4,210 standard fee), free parking permits or free OC bus passes, and smaller class sizes were publicized to incentivize students to join. Each class has around 30 to 40 students to simulate a small college experience.

Jerry Xu, an ALA undeclared major, said, “It’s the easiest possible transition from high school to college. They put you in a high school environment where you are in a classroom with thirty other kids so that it’s easier to make friends compared to a large lecture hall or discussion.”

Leo Peng, an ALA computer science major, also enjoyed the cohort system, noting that “we take classes with the same small group of people so we all get familiar with each other, like a family.”

Because ALA members are not eligible for on-campus housing or need-based financial aid, the program is “most attractive to students from mid-income families who planned to commute or live off campus.” Dhruv Upadhyay, an ALA computer science major, said that this was his situation: “I probably wasn’t planning on dorming, ALA or not.”

In terms of classes, ALA students are offered “selected general education courses and customized programs exploring topics such as presentation skills, entrepreneurship and career advancement.” This translates to four courses per quarter (unless students petition for additional courses), one of which must be the mandatory ALA Leadership class. The other three are selected from the nine to twelve General Education courses the program offers each quarter. UCI is “able to keep costs low by providing a specialized curriculum in collaboration with the Division of Continuing Education (DCE).”The DCE offers education to non-degree-pursuing learners in the form of classes, certificates, international programs, and other UC Extension programs.

All ALA students have alternative enrollment status in the DCE, and therefore take their classes through DCE rather than the official UCI system. While the program began with the intention of only offering students General Education courses with few exceptions, concerns from students having trouble graduating on time incited some changes.

“This was a pilot program, so students had a lot of concerns about falling behind. In order to quell our fears, they developed guaranteed classes,” said Upadhyay. “I think [ALA] is a great program, especially if you are in a competitive major because of guaranteed classes.”

The “guaranteed classes” Upadhyay describes usually apply to major requirements so that ALA students can stay on track for graduation. If a class is necessary to stay on track, ALA reserves a spot in the student’s name.

While Upadhyay and many other ALA students have had positive experiences enrolling in major required courses, ALA students do not always get full confirmation for the classes they request due to the unique course enrollment process for ALA. Jacqueline Nguyen, an ALA public health sciences major, said that “our finalized schedules were all subject to change…We didn’t know who our professor was until the day before class.”

In order to enroll in classes each quarter, ALA students list their top course choices on paper. ALA counselors  then specially curate students’ schedules by working with the major department’s counselors for each particular student, as ALA students have no access to WebReg, the standard website used to enroll and register in classes. Upadhyay noted that “the downside of having reserved classes is that you don’t have control over your schedule. If you are fine with that, then ALA is perfect, but if you want control over your class schedule, it may not be a program for you.”

With the high demand for and decreasing availability of parking permits, the benefit of being guaranteed a parking permit upon enrolling in the program was a perk that sealed the deal for many students. Many were able to enjoy this benefit, but a condition that was made clear to students only after having enrolled affected some students local to Irvine.

“I found the way that ALA handled parking to be very inconsiderate and inconveniencing,” said Upadhyay. “First off, they told us very specifically that if you sign up for the program, then you get the free parking pass. However, the first official meeting they had about the parking passes they…put a two mile radius around the school. They said if we lived in that radius then we do not get the pass because … the bus would be able to take us. My house sits at the edge of the radius and the nearest bus stop is 1.5 miles away, so it is fairly presumptuous of someone’s schedule to say that [students] ‘can just bike there.’”

Overall, however, students expressed being generally satisfied with the program and acknowledged that its benefits outweighed the shortcomings and logistical issues that accompanied its first year of implementation.

“I really liked [ALA] because the events made it possible for me to get used to a group of people,” said ALA biological sciences major Maryam Farahani. “The biggest advantage was that I had similar people in each of my classes, so I was able to make friends and build connections. I also love the mentors! I talk to them all the time. They are a good support system, and I like visiting them when I get the chance.”

Jane and Chelsea are both UCI students who are currently in the Anteater Leadership Academy.