As Maricela Alvarado was organizing the commencement ceremony for the College of the Arts, a student informed her he could not afford a cap and gown and would be unable to participate.
The assistant dean, who graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a bachelor’s degree in human services, had found her own commencement regalia from her 2003 graduation, just days before. She promptly passed it along to the art student. The unexpected turn of events also sparked an important conversation among the assistant deans in all eight colleges and the Irvine Center.
“We can’t assume that everyone can afford a cap and gown,” says Alvarado, who received her master’s degree in public and policy administration from CSU Long Beach and is working on her doctorate of education in higher education leadership at Azusa Pacific University.
“The team of assistant deans for Student Affairs had Graduation Initiative 2025 funds that allowed us to consider innovative ways to support student success. Along with increasing graduation rates, there is a call to ensure equity in that effort as well,” explained Catherine Ward, interim executive director for retention initiatives in the Department of Assistant Deans for Student Affairs.
Tasked with reviewing barriers to student success and equity on campus, and how they could affect change, “the ability to afford regalia really spoke to assistant deans. Over the years they have been privy to students who have shared their inability to acquire regalia,” said Ward. “This would impede them from participating in commencement exercises, which also impacted their families and the ability to really celebrate this accomplishment.”
“We teamed up with department chairs, advisers, deans and graduation specialists to identify students who might need assistance, and created an application form,” said Alvarado. The colleges and the Irvine Center worked collaboratively and were able to give out 97 caps and gowns to students who admitted they had financial challenges.
“We understand that equity in higher education is not only measured in academic outcomes — it’s also how students experience their education. Equity includes the idea of full participation and the value of offering equitable opportunities to fully participate in their education. It was a beautiful consensus among assistant deans that this was one way in which they were going to do equity work,” said Ward, adding that they are committed to finding ways in which they can repeat the effort in coming years.
“We were so excited to do this,” said Alvarado. “This speaks to the type of services we contribute to each college. We advocate for students to make sure they have an equitable experience.”