UCR Honors: A Gala Celebration was an exemplary showcase which celebrated achievements of University of California, Riverside (UCR) alumni and philanthropic leaders, most notably honoring comedian and actor, Cheech Marin. 

On Saturday night, April 6, 2024, the Student Recreation Center’s (SRC) arena transformed into an elegant affair. Upon entering the event, guests were greeted by a sparkling venue. A large screen in the venue’s center displayed a dazzling image of the iconic UCR Bell Tower and read the eponymous title of the event. As guests conversed with one another while taking the occasional hors d’oeuvre, the room felt like entering Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Dreamy, elegant and intimate, it created the perfect backdrop to a night of dining, drinking and commemoration. 

The event’s planning took at least eight months, according to Amy Kim, director of University Events. Kim stated that there was plenty of work put into the event; organizers collaborated with campus partner, Citrus Grove, and one of their three sponsors, Show Imaging, Inc. As the gala will now be an annual event, Kim elaborated upon its significance: “The main purpose of the event was to honor our three Alumni Award recipient[s] … we actually added an inaugural Distinguished Philanthropist Award and the UCR Medallion, which existed, but we hadn’t had an in-person event like this.” 

The proceeds for this event went towards supporting student initiatives, and Kim specified that “when you buy a ticket, half of it is actually a gift that goes to that fund.” Kim hopes that as the gala continues annually, they will “continue to bring people to campus and really showcase what … our mission is.”

Attending the event was UCR class of 1989 alumni Yolanda Flores, a biology major in pre-med with a minor in Spanish, spent the evening reminiscing about her memories at UCR. Outlining her hopes for current students on campus, Flores said, “[we] want to make sure that [students] have a positive career pathway, not just [acquiring] a degree in hand, but to have that job. That’s my goal … for them to have … something new that will really catapult them to carry on that UCR name right, like I did.” 

The night’s first speaker was UCR’s Chancellor, Kim A. Wilcox. Chancellor Wilcox remarked how Alumni Awards were presented at the Chancellor’s Dinner each fall, but now the UCR Gala will create a space for alumni to celebrate their accomplishments and the continuation of UCR’s core values throughout their careers. “Some of you remember the days when we were a small campus dedicated to doing the best we could … and there were just a few faculty members and a few students and a commitment to make a difference in this part of California. Those things are the same as they were then,” affirmed Chancellor Wilcox about UCR’s increased rankings as a leading institution. Chancellor Wilcox welcomed guests to enjoy their dinners before commencing the night’s awards. 

After guests enjoyed their braised ribs or crab cakes, Steve Shuman, class of 1975 alumni and president of the UCR Alumni Association Board of Directors, presented the following alumni awards: Outstanding Young Alumni Award, Alumni Service Award and the Distinguished Alumni Award. Before these were presented, Shuman took the time to honor Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, who passed away earlier this year. Valdez-Yaegar had been Chair of the Awards Committee on UCR’s Alumni Association Board and served as the first Latina in the Riverside University Unified School District. Valdez-Yeager had been involved with the growing community around Riverside, most notably by aiding in establishing a center for Chicano art to be spotlighted. 

Shuman vocalized about Valdez-Yeager’s involvement with the Riverside community, stating, “she played an instrumental role in establishing the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture … she would be especially pleased that we are honoring Cheech Marin tonight.” Shuman then asked the audience for a moment of silence to honor her remarkable legacy that Valdez-Yeager continues to uphold posthumously.

Shuman then began the awards ceremony, and presented the Outstanding Young Alumni Award, which “honors alumni 40 years or younger, with a significant record of career or civic achievement.” The award was presented to Jesse Melgar, a class of 2017 alumni who serves as Senior Advisor for Strategy and Public Affairs at the University of California Possibility Lab. Melgar’s experiences also delved into governmental positions, including being a communications director for the Latino Legislative Caucus and State Senate and even serving as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s communications director and press secretary. 

Melgar accepted his award onstage and proceeded to dedicate it to Valdez-Yeager, who was his mentor at the age of 15. His career within government sectors has not always been rosy, as Melgar described it. He took the opportunity to bring up the topics he has been eagerly advocating for throughout his career, including “[advancing] LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, voting rights and basic human rights. Work that pulls in those who are too often pushed to the margins and work that doesn’t just check the box, but that seats impactful solutions outside of it.” 

The Alumni Service Award was then given to Manav Sachdeva, class of 1999, which honors those who showcase “superior service in the public sector and a sustained pattern of volunteer service this year.” Sachdeva previously worked within the United Nations (UN) as a senior analyst and program specialist for Asia Pacific and Arab states. By 2019, he also served as the chief international officer for McCann Kyiv, Ukraine. 

Sachdeva was light-hearted in his acceptance speech as he thanked the University and his family and friends. He spoke about solidarity and the meaning of it to other individuals who may be going through difficult times. He emphasized, “if you have a moment where there’s somebody in front of you, a friend, family or somebody who doesn’t know you, just needs your solidarity of strength. I just think that’s service … if you can help reconstitute that to somehow [being] totally present.” Sachdeva urged audience members to consider these moments with people, regardless of their status to us, and be present in these moments as they can last a lifetime. 

The final honoree, Christy Lopez, received the Distinguished Alumni Award. Lopez graduated UCR in 1990, and later became a professor of practice at Georgetown Law in 2017 where she currently teaches criminal justice. She also served as a deputy chief in the special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division at the United States Department of Justice, which led her to investigate police departments and other law enforcement agencies regarding their constitutional practices. 

Lopez highlighted how she has “always been motivated by the need to protect basic human dignity from the … abuse by the government.” Lopez’s first opinions piece on The Washington Post was about the killing of George Floyd; she recalled in her introductory video that there was something to be done about incidents like these. After Lopez accepted her award, she thanked her mother for teaching her a great lesson: to question authority. “And that to me … means questioning whether the way things are the way that they should be or the way that they have to be,” reflected Lopez. 

The Distinguished Philanthropist Award was then presented and honored to Byron and Teresa Pollitt. Described as “exceptional alumni, volunteers and visionary philanthropic leaders” by the emcee, the Pollitt’s have been involved as donors to UCR for years, and most recently gave the School of Medicine the Mission Award Scholarship Endowed Fund that will completely cover medical students’ tuition and fees. 

Byron proclaimed onstage that he is “proud of what UCR has become with a student population which is now 26,000 and a portfolio of colleges and graduate schools that are both distinguished and highly relevant in today’s world.” He then explained that though the award is titled “philanthropist,” he sees himself and his wife as “investors in the student experience … and says thank you for the impact that [UCR] has had on our lives.” 

Chancellor Wilcox returned to the stage to present the final award. The UCR Medallion is meant to recognize leadership, innovation and philanthropy. “Tonight we present the UCR Medallion to Cheech Marin for his advocacy [and] philanthropy … for trailblazing Chicano artists and inspir[ing] underrepresented artists everywhere,” announced Chancellor Wilcox. 

Marin has continuously collected Chicano artwork throughout the years, and he has successful exhibitions in 50 museums. Chancellor Wilcox continued, “In 2022 … through a partnership with the city of Riverside and Riverside Art Museum, his vision took a new form when the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture opened, otherwise known as The Cheech.” The Cheech contains more than 700 of Marin’s works and continues to offer a space where Chicano artists and stories can flourish. 

Unfortunately, Marin wasn’t present to accept his award, but he filmed a video to give his thanks and gratitude to the Riverside community. He said, “I’ve been welcomed with open arms, and I think that made for the success of The Cheech because that’s [what] really transmits to everybody who comes into the building.” Marin encouraged guests to visit The Cheech, as it showcases the colorful stories and perspectives of Chicano identities. 

Chancellor Wilcox returned to the stage and thanked the UCR community for attending UCR’s first gala. He asked the audience to continue looking for and finding recipients the gala had celebrated to continue UCR’s growth of future leaders.

The emcee was welcomed back to the stage by Chancellor Wilcox. She ended the night with a beautiful and heartfelt rendition of “Rise Up” by Andra Day that left a fulfilling impression on UCR Honors: A Gala Celebration. 

Raul Seja, a 2013 UCR graduate, described his experience at his first gala event at his alma mater. “I think the biggest takeaway for me was the beauty and diversity and especially being a first generation college graduate, how open UCR is to people like me, and [it] very much aligned with the message of tonight,” he mentioned. 

As for current students who attended the gala, Samuel Shroff, a second-year public policy major and a Dean’s Brand Ambassador for the school of public policy, spoke about his experience being a positive one. When asked how this event would impact his future years at UCR, Shroff said, “I think it just shows how many possibilities there are with a degree … it’s just really inspiring, and it gives me hope that I can be like [the honorees].” Along with Shroff was his peer Andrew Shannon, a second-year public policy and also a Dean’s Brand Ambassador. Shannon shared how he hopes more students could get involved with an event like this, as he referred to it as “inspiring” for the community. 

Students can look to attend next year’s celebration of the alumni and inspirational leaders of UCR on Apr. 5, 2025.