Justin De Toro, Adaline Lee, Justin Javier, Sierra Dimapilis, and Jamee Riddle-Barrios are providing quality, student-focused support that will help undergrads flourish on campus and after graduation in their professional careers.

Undergraduate Programs team supports students with innovative programming and teamwork

April 23, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Since Dr. Maria Grandone was hired as the new director of Undergraduate Programs in November 2022, her team has made an indelible mark at the Merage School.

Using collaboration, partnerships, and technological advancement, the undergraduate team has instilled a proactive approach to advisement and supporting undergraduate students. Justin De Toro, Adaline Lee, Justin Javier, Sierra Dimapilis, and Jamee Riddle-Barrios have made significant strides in accomplishing the mission of providing quality, student-focused support that will help undergrads flourish on campus and after graduation in their professional careers.

Their approach is working. Since 2016, the amount of new students has increased from 224 to 526 students in 2023.

“The most important goal for our team is to build a strong community and a great sense of belonging for our students,” Dr. Grandone said. “The team is dedicated to developing holistic advising programs and utilizing technology to support student learning. This is all very possible with the incredible leadership, staff, and students at the Merage School. The team is always dreaming big.”


Proactive Approach to Connection

The undergraduate programs team has focused on designing more student-centered academic advising and undergraduate programs. This enables relationship-building with students, fostering a supportive environment for undergrads.

Staff has also taken a proactive approach to academic advising. For example, the department now facilitates the event, “Academic Advising at the Courtyard,” where advisors will connect with students outside on campus. Advisors know that students are busy and they may not have the time to seek counseling.

Always looking to improve the student experience, De Toro and Lee, both academic advisors, gather data to analyze and cater to student needs. This allows the team to be agile.

“Adaline and I work very closely to find the best solutions and areas to improve,” De Toro said. “It’s making a difference. In one recent week, more than 197 students visited our office and a majority of them met with our peer academic advisors.”

Dimapilis, programs assistant in Undergraduate Programs, is working on another method to keep students connected with the important work of the undergraduate team. She’s creating a newsletter to provide the undergraduate student body with news about the office and the various student organizations on campus.

As a Merage School alumna, Dimapilis has unique insight into engaging with students and is well-suited to developing the newsletter.

“I’ve been able to help update and improve some of our processes just based off of what our students may be expecting or what our students experience because I have experienced the student side of things,” she said.


Community-Building Events and Workshops

A major focus for the undergraduate team is providing events that support and encourage community within the student population. Some of these events include a Dean’s Welcome for every incoming class, town halls, fashion shows, and a photo shoot to equip students with professional headshots.

Associate Director for Undergraduate Programs Justin Javier, who organizes many of the events, said the “Dress for Success” event has been one of the most valuable for students. Working with the business community, faculty and staff donate clothing for the event to provide students with professional attire.

“There’s suits, shoes, and accessories—everything under the gamut for all students,” Javier said. “I think this is a great way for us to support our students’ careers and to ensure that everybody has the resources that they need to be successful.”

Many students on campus may not have access to the same resources as others. For the undergraduate team, these are the students that need even more guidance and support.

With supporting first-generation students being a critical focus for the team, Lee is working on a program called “First-Gen Thrive.” The program includes a three-part workshop series, mentorship, and funding to attend conferences.

Students would learn about professionalism, networking, identity, financial wellness, and what it means to be a first-generation student. The issue is personal for Lee and De Toro, who are both first-generation graduates.

“My older sister and I were the first to go to college in the history of my family,” Lee said. “There’s a specific experience that comes from being a first-generation student, as well as being a low-income student and underrepresented minority. It can be very isolating. With this program, I want to make equitable access a priority for us and we can make these spaces so that the students can feel seen and heard and learn specific skills that they may not have come into UCI knowing.”

One of De Toro’s proudest moments was working with Lee to relaunch a celebration event for first-generation students in November. A particular highlight of that event was a 15-minute video that featured a series of interviews from first-generation members of the Merage community. They offered crucial advice to students.

De Toro is hoping to hold the event annually.

“I’m really looking forward to helping students who may not have that representation feel represented in that space,” De Toro said. “That’s something I am very passionate about.”


Going Above and Beyond

An important part of supporting undergraduate students is directing them to the resources they need. The undergraduate team has expanded the collaborative efforts of the department to make sure that students are provided with necessary support. This is particularly important because the department wants first-generation and transfer students to be successful.

A critical partnership on campus has been with the Merage School Student Association (MUSA). This has helped bridge the opportunity for communication, collaboration, and partnership. The undergraduate team has also strengthened the department’s partnership with the Career Center to prepare students for post-university life.

“We are not just collaborating with other schools, but also across campus,” Dr. Grandone said. “We need to make sure that students get connected with individuals who can help them.”

These cross-campus partnerships wouldn’t be possible without a unified team. The undergraduate programs team is deeply collaborative, with each member being able to lend a hand to a colleague at a moment’s notice.

“Our department has really strong communication and teamwork,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of cross collaboration. It’s just an easy way to define the many tasks that we have to do for undergraduates in our small team. Something that is very special about our team is everyone puts in the work and goes above and beyond.”


Supporting Students with Innovative Technology

Considering a core goal of the Merage School is preparing students for a rapidly evolving digital world, it is understandable that the undergraduate staff has also looked to use advanced technology to help students.

Javier is excited to be a part of a pilot program for an admissions recruitment program that uses virtual reality (VR). In response to changing higher education needs, UCI’s Enrollment Management and Undergraduate Admissions offices partnered with the undergraduate department to launch the program to enhance student advising during recruitment. The program, which targets admitted out-of-state freshman for the 2024-2025 school year, aims to examine whether VR can replace or supplement in-person visits to campus for students facing geographical or financial barriers.

“The literature clearly states that academic advisors are instrumental in shaping the success of students, and since our school’s motto is ‘Leadership for a Digitally Driven World,’ we recognize the potential of technology to enhance traditional advising methods,” Dr. Grandone said. “This will serve as an opportunity to supplement what we already offer by overcoming limitations of resource constraints, static information delivery, and the challenge of replicating real-world scenarios.”

The program will also evaluate the effectiveness of VR in delivering, engaging, and advising experiences. Feedback will be gathered from participants in the pilot program to help shape future advising initiatives.

“This is something we are very proud of and we hope to continue looking at the future of advising with VR,” Javier said. “Access of education is very important for our student population and this gives us an opportunity to open up access for everyone.”


Future Plans

As the student population continues to grow at the Merage School, the passionate work of the undergraduate programs team will continue to evolve. Dr. Grandone said her team has big plans for the future.

This could include a conference for student leaders to showcase leadership in the business world and a transfer student program that focuses on professional development.

“With this talented team, I am very confident that we can continue to evolve and create an undergraduate program that supports students from all backgrounds,” Dr. Grandone said. “We will provide the necessary resources to students during their time on campus so they can realize their full potential and leave the university with all the tools they need to be successful in their careers.”