Next week, we welcome our 49th freshman class to campus! This is a momentous occasion in their lives… and in ours.

They come, more than 5,000 strong, from all 50 states and 38 foreign countries, to pursue a world-class education and to prepare to achieve beyond their dreams. We don’t know them yet, but they certainly include future Academy Award or Pulitzer Prize winners who will change how we look at ourselves, athletes who will compete on the world stage, scientists who will help cure diseases, business innovators who will grow great enterprises, teachers who will inspire generations to learn and to value learning, and leaders in countless other professions.

An amazing 60 percent of these new Anteaters are the first in their families to attend university, and close to 40 percent are from lower income families. As a public institution our mission is to serve the people of the state of California, and enabling students to move forward to a more fulfilling and impactful future through higher education is a vital part of that mission.

Article Tab: UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake.
UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake.

The vast majority of our students come from Southern California. This isn’t surprising – public universities usually attract most of their students from the communities and regions around their campuses. Our student body thus reflects the incredible ethnic and cultural diversity of Orange County.

As you might gather, no one ethnic or racial group constitutes a majority on our campus, unless students whose families were originally from countries representing roughly half the northern hemisphere and half the world’s population are grouped together as Asian. But even a superficially closer look finds a great diversity of religions, cultures, politics, and history within groups that have been traditionally categorized as similar.

This illustrates a phenomenon we see on campus – the differences within groups are commonly greater than the differences between groups. The experience that we have, daily, is that our preconceived notions of what one of our students is likely to believe bears no certain resemblance to his or her actual point of view. Conversely, given that most of our students were raised in Southern California, the between-group differences can be small to utterly nonexistent. The only reasonable way to determine someone’s point of view turns out to be to actually (shock!) ask them, to engage them in conversation. It’s not as quick as knee-jerk stereotyping, but it is much, much better! And particularly in this era of sound bites and electronic media, anything that promotes face to face human interaction is a plus in my book.

Nearly half a century ago UC Irvine was founded and continues to be built on four pillars of excellence: academic excellence, research excellence, leadership excellence, and character excellence. Character excellence in particular is developed and honed in our daily interactions with others. On campus we refer to these as extracurricular or co-curricular learning. What a privilege it is to learn from and with the brilliant and diverse young men and women who join us this month. Last month we as a nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He spoke eloquently of his dream of a day when his children – and all of us – would be judged by the content of our character. That day is unfortunately not fully upon us, but in many ways, and on many days, our campus has made great progress toward living that dream.

Michael Drake has served as chancellor of UC Irvine since 2005. Before that, he was vice president for health affairs of the University of California system.