John Tracy, Ph.D. ’87, gave to create an endowed scholarship that supports underrepresented students in STEM fields. Photo: John Tracy

Alumnus Helps Others Follow
in his Footsteps

There are two very different types of jobs at Coca-Cola, Victoria Alegria Tracy told her son, John, as they visited the bottling plant in Los Angeles when he was a child: In one, you watch the bottles go past on an assembly line and verify the level of liquid in them – and get paid near-minimum wages. In the other, you wear a white lab coat and determine the chemistry of the liquid – and receive a sizable salary.

She made clear that if John wanted the second kind of job, he would need a good education.

Victoria Tracy had a sharp mind but had never gone to college because her family couldn’t afford it. She came from humble origins, growing up in a Spanish-speaking home in Boyle Heights and marrying a man whose pursuit of higher education was prevented by World War II. She got her first job at age 55 when her husband retired – and then worked for the next three decades as a real estate developer.

In the years after that visit to the Coca-Cola plant, John Tracy latched onto a dream of becoming a scientist, first earning a bachelor’s degree in physics at California State University, Dominguez Hills; then a master’s degree in physics at California State University, Los Angeles; and, in 1987, a Ph.D. in engineering at UCI. He spent an illustrious career at Boeing, where he eventually was put in charge of the entire engineering department of 55,000 people and the manufacturing department of 45,000.

Enabling Others’ Success

At a meeting a few years ago in Chicago, Tracy spoke with UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman, who mentioned that the university is now officially a Hispanic-serving institution. The federal HSI designation is awarded to schools where at least 25 percent of undergraduates are Latino and at least half of all students receive financial aid. UCI’s commitment to Hispanic students convinced Tracy, who had been supporting efforts for minority students at other schools for two decades, that he needed to give to UCI. He knew from personal experience the difference that higher education can make for Latino families.

“In my work at Boeing, I saw firsthand how a kid from an underserved community can dramatically change the life of an entire family overnight when they get their first paycheck in a technology field,” Tracy says. “If students would pursue engineering, chemistry, physics, computer science or similar paths, it would dramatically change their lives. And the way the Hispanic community works, it would change the life of their whole family.”

Last year, Tracy donated $100,000 to UCI to create an endowed scholarship named in honor of his mother, Victoria Alegria Tracy. UCI matched the amount, adding another $100,000. From the fund, four undergraduate scholarships will be awarded each year to underrepresented students in STEM fields, based on financial need. Tracy also recently finalized a similar $100,000 endowment for underrepresented graduate students.

Active in the UCI community for years, Tracy was selected in 2009 as The Henry Samueli School of Engineering’s Lauds & Laurels Distinguished Alumnus. Tracy he has been a member of the Chancellor’s Club for three years and is one of 31 founding members of the UCI Orange County Alliance for a Latinx Thriving University. The alliance was founded in 2020 and supports students and Latinx programs at UCI and collectively works to increase scholarships, mentoring and internships.

Perseverance Pays Off

From the day Tracy earned his bachelor’s degree, he was working full time. When he was in UCI’s doctoral program, Tracy was putting in 60-hour weeks as an engineer at Boeing while raising two children with his wife.

“If you find something you like to do, you can do anything you set your mind to. You just can’t give up; I don’t care if you fail a class. UCI can give students a vision of what they can do and provides a supportive environment – including scholarships – so they can achieve what they aspire to.”

- John Tracy, Ph.D. ’87

He would depart for his job at Boeing at 7 a.m., then attend classes at UCI in the afternoon before heading back to Boeing. In the evening, he would go home for dinner and some family time and then return to UCI, where he would work in the lab until midnight. “It wasn’t easy, but the education radically changed my life,” Tracy says.

Stratospheric success was not something he would have imagined as a minority student at Gardena High School – or during his first job as a high school physics teacher. But through hard work, persistence and the support of those around him, Tracy rose to the top of his field. He urges today’s students to similarly commit to realizing their dreams.

“If you find something you like to do, you can do anything you set your mind to. You just can’t give up; I don’t care if you fail a class,” Tracy says. “UCI can give students a vision of what they can do and provides a supportive environment – including scholarships – so they can achieve what they aspire to.”