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First Person: Telling Students They, Too, Can Go From Compton To Neurobiology

Gentry Patrick

Credit: UC San Diego

Above: Gentry Patrick

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Special Feature First Person

KPBS Midday Edition's First Person series tells the stories of average and not-so-average San Diegans in their own words. Their experiences, both universal and deeply personal, offer a unique lens into the news of the day.

According to Gentry Patrick, you could not have predicted he would become a professor.

“In part because my mom had me at 16 years old,” Patrick said. “I grew up in inner-city, South Central (Los Angeles). I was the first to go to college in my family. Nobody knew about science.”

Patrick is now a full professor and neurobiologist in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences. His lab studies how the brain turns over proteins that are no longer needed, and how that process is linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“I never had this interest of, ‘Oh, I want to solve Alzheimer’s disease,’” Patrick said. “I thought science was cool. And I think that foundation will allow a student to actually thrive a little bit better and longer.”

Patrick is one of hundreds of University of California faculty members who were the first in their families to go to college reaching out this year to first-generation students. They are wearing special buttons identifying themselves to students. And Patrick is leading a new effort to support underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering and math majors.

What Fueled Me To Be First? First-Gen Faculty, Staff And Student Forum And Mixer

5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2 in the UC San Diego Multi-Purpose Room (Directions and RSVP)

The Division of Biological Sciences is launching PATHS next summer. It is a four-year program that will pair students of color — many of whom who are the first in their families to go to college — with counselors, mentors, summer internships, scholarships and other supports.

The number of first-generation students at UC San Diego is up 33 percent since 2007 for freshmen and 139 percent for transfers. It's posing a new challenge for the campus — first-generation students are less likely than their peers to graduate. Just over 80 percent of first-generation students in the UC system graduate within six years, compared to 87 percent of their peers.

“Somehow we have to not squash the potential that some student has just because they’re coming from an impoverished neighborhood or a school that may not have 40 (Advanced Placement) courses — there’s only 3 or 4 — and somehow provide them with a playbook and a platform to be just as successful as anyone else,” Patrick said. “Because what do these students have? They have things like grit. They have a real sense of family where they know that they’re being depended on.”

Patrick said what made the difference for him was a combination of things.

“Just this interest in learning was fundamental,” said Patrick of his childhood. “If I had not had a true passion for the learning process whatsoever, I would not be on this trajectory.”

He said he also had people in and out of school encouraging him.

“It could have just been things like telling me, ‘You’re pretty smart. You should make sure you don’t waste that,’” Patrick said.

“And my mom (had) me at such a young age, but she was extremely dedicated to me getting a good education,” he said. “In fact she consistently talked about, ‘Gentry, you have to use education. That’s the the only way you’re going to get out of this.’”

Patrick said students also have to be bold in advocating for themselves. He recalled spending an hour pacing in his Berkeley apartment, trying to convince a professor over the phone to let him into a master’s program at UC San Francisco despite sub-par grades.

“I could have just given up and said I guess I’ll try something different, but I assured him that he should give me a shot and he would not regret it,” said Patrick, who got into the program and then went on to Harvard before coming to UC San Diego. “We joke to this day, ‘What if I just said no? Gentry, we wouldn’t be here today.’”

“That’s a great example of someone looking beyond the grades — making sure that the capacity for success is there but looking at all the more salient aspects.”

In addition to his efforts helping students, Patrick is his department’s director of mentorship and diversity. He said he sees his role in the position as encouraging more faculty to reach out like he has.

“I want my colleagues to see that with minimal effort,” Patrick said, “they can make such a big difference in the lives of students.”

Correction: This story originally said Gentry Patrick would participate in a forum at UC San Diego Thursday. He is out of town and will not be at the forum.


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