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UCLA Optimists

It was just before Thanksgiving when then-high school junior Angela Sanchez and her father lost their home in Glendale, California.

A perfect storm of financial and family problems left her architect father unemployed, and the hardships soon led to eviction.

They slept in a car for the first few months, keeping up appearances of normalcy as best they could. Eventually, they found their way to a cold-weather shelter, then a family shelter.


[rebelmouse-image 19530515 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

But these were little more than places to sleep, and while it certainly helped to have a roof over their heads, it wasn’t enough to stop the stress of poverty and homelessness.

Despite it all, Sanchez did what she could to keep her grades — and her attendance — up. Her father had always taught her that education was incredibly important, and she had just started a new after-school club at the beginning of the year.

The theme of that club? Magic.

"A magician, by profession, is someone who is withholding knowledge," she explains.

And Sanchez's desire for hidden knowledge — to move beyond the hand that life had dealt her to experience something more — pushed her to succeed.

But just like magic, it would take a little know-how to get her there. That didn't stop her from trying, though.

[rebelmouse-image 19530516 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

From a young age, Sanchez was drawn to the history of magic and magicians.

Everything from witchcraft to voodoo to Harry Houdini — particularly the ways they all tied back to women’s roles in society. Women who practiced magic were historically condemned while men were revered. Even as magic became more theatrical, women were still relegated to the role of assistants.

The history of women in magic resonated with Sanchez's thirst for knowledge, particularly when the odds are stacked against you.

After all, even AP calculus is still a secret knowledge of the world.

[rebelmouse-image 19530517 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

But it wasn't easy. As her anxiety and uncertainty about the future got the best of her, even magic club began to fall apart her senior year, and calculus turned out to be an even greater struggle than she imagined.

Sanchez’s plummeting grades threatened the future she’d been looking forward to (one that, she hoped, would take her to UCLA).

That’s when she discovered School on Wheels, a nonprofit that offers tutoring support for children struggling with poverty and homelessness.

The nonprofit paired her with an astrophysics graduate student from Cal Tech.

"Making that connection was the best thing that ever happened to me while being homeless, and since then I have maintained a constant relationship with them," she says.

Her tutor not only offered her guidance in AP calculus, but he also gave her some "secret knowledge" to help unlock the mysterious realm of the college application process, a process that many underprivileged students are unsure of how to navigate.

A little support went a long way, and Sanchez was accepted to UCLA.

[rebelmouse-image 19530518 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

And by calling on that same tutor, Sanchez was also able to track down a variety of local community scholarships, and learned about the differences between need, merit, and passion-based support as she navigated her way through a pile of applications.

[rebelmouse-image 19530519 dam="1" original_size="1200x625" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

She secured enough scholarships to cover the cost of her education. But there were two in particular that meant more than money.

Sanchez received $10,000 through the Spirit of American Youth scholarship, awarded by L.A. developer and USC alum Rick Caruso.

"Having that scholarship was extremely important because I was able to request that money in different amounts over the course of my four years," she says, "So, I could fill in the gaps as I needed it."

[rebelmouse-image 19530520 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

She also received a UCLA scholarship from the Alumni Scholars Program and was supported by an alumnus named Craig Ehrlich.

Ehrlich not only doubled the value of Sanchez’s initial scholarship, but also turned out to be a crucial networking conduit for Sanchez's personal and professional relationships.

"More than just maintaining a relationship with my donor, I’ve also kept in touch with all the other scholarship recipients," she says. "When you're able to provide support for students like that, it's a game changer. It colors your whole experience."

[rebelmouse-image 19530521 dam="1" original_size="1200x636" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

That support helped Sanchez find tremendous success throughout her time at UCLA — and she used that opportunity to pay it forward.

During her sophomore year, Sanchez launched and organized a School on Wheels chapter at UCLA to help out other kids who were in the same tough spot that she had been just two years earlier.

"Our volunteers took care of everything from supplies to snacks to transportation," she explains. "We would go over to the shelters and group homes at night, and we would work there with the students."

[rebelmouse-image 19530522 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

When it came time to write her thesis for her history degree, Sanchez returned to a topic she knew well: the representation of women in magic history.

And thanks to the skills she learned in seeking out and applying for scholarships and grants, she was able to find the funding to travel around the country and continue her research through fellowships at other universities, too.

"If you can invest yourself into an area of extreme passion for you, everything else follows from there," she says.

The connections that she made — and the knowledge she discovered — helped Sanchez to secure a job after graduation.

After completing her bachelor’s in history, Sanchez stayed at UCLA to get her master’s in education. Along the way, she became interested in ECMC Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in L.A. that invests in programs to improve educational outcomes for students from underserved backgrounds.

[rebelmouse-image 19530523 dam="1" original_size="1200x624" caption="Image via UCLA/YouTube." expand=1]Image via UCLA/YouTube.

For some students — especially those who are at-risk or low-income — the pathway to success is mysterious enough that it may as well be magic.

But Sanchez’s story shows that scholarships can open the doorway to the tools that students need to make their dreams a reality.

Today, Sanchez continues to work as the program analyst for College Success at ECMC Foundation, helping students like the one she used to be.

She helps oversee and determine the efficiency for college support and scholarship programs that help out people in similar situations to the one she used to be in. Essentially, she's professionally giving advice about how to succeed in college like she did.

She’s also on the board at School on Wheels, and is a magician member/magic historian with The Academy of Magical Arts. She gave back to UCLA with a monetary donation last year and hopes to give again in the future.

"I’m hoping to foster opportunity for others," she says. "A lot of opportunity has been given to me, so I am responsible for creating the same experience for other students and scale it as far as I can."

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