Meet the EPC Team

EPC Staff Directory by Program

EPC Staff Directory by Name

EPC Leadership

Headshot of Maria for contacts page

Maria Rocha-Ruiz, MPA

Assistant Vice Chancellor of Educational Partnerships and Chief Campus Outreach Officer

Maria joined the UC Santa Cruz Educational Partnership Center (EPC) in 2006, serving in a variety of managerial roles. She has led the EPC as executive director since 2013. She has nearly three decades of experience working in P-20 settings, designing, implementing, managing, and evaluating programs that primarily serve low-income, underrepresented students and provide access to and preparation for postsecondary education. Maria’s background as a low-income, first-generation college student drives her unwavering resolve and devotion to ensure that access and opportunities to postsecondary education are available to ALL students to realize their aspirations. Maria earned a B.A. in Psychology from UC Santa Cruz and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. As executive director of the EPC, she has been successful in acquiring more than $41 million in grant funding for improving high school graduation and college enrollment and attainment rates for low-income and historically non-college-going students in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara counties. In her spare time, Maria enjoys spending time with her family, reading, hiking, and traveling.

Kristin Brubaker

Deputy Director

Kristin is honored to act as Deputy Director for the Educational Partnership Center. Kristin has worked in educational access and career development for over 10 years, with a focus on community engagement. She values the importance of engaging students through hands-on experiences in multiple settings, which increases student opportunity and educational equity. Prior to coming to UC Santa Cruz, Kristin spent 6 years at Utah State University as a GEAR UP Director and Community Engagement Coordinator. During her time there, she led the creation of the 2017 University Civic Action Plan to increase university and community collaboration and educational experiential learning. Kristin also managed two AmeriCorps programs in California working with local governments to address climate change.

Kristin holds an M.A. in Environmental Science and Policy from Clark University and a B.A from Albion College. She is an avid swimmer, hiker, and biker, and enjoys spending time with friends and family.

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Catherine R. Cooper, Ph.D.

EPC Faculty Advisor

Catherine R. Cooper, Ph.D. (University of Minnesota), is a UCSC research professor of Psychology, faculty director of the Educational Partnership Center, and director of the Bridging Multiple Worlds Alliance, an international network of researchers, educators, and policymakers working for educational equity from preschool through graduate and professional school (P-20). She also serves as research advisor with the UCSC Hispanic-Serving Institutions Initiatives. Her recent volumes, written with colleagues, students, and community partners, include: Cooper and Seginer (Eds.) (2018). Navigating Pathways in Multicultural Nations: Identities, Future Orientation, Schooling, and Careers, Special Issue of New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development; Cooper (2011). Bridging Multiple Worlds: Cultures, Identities, and Pathways to College; Cooper, Garcia-Coll, Bartko, Davis, and Chatman (Eds.) (2005). Developmental Pathways through Middle Childhood: Rethinking Context and Diversity as Resources; and Moran, Roa, Goza, and Cooper (Eds.) (2005). Success by Design: Creating College Bound Communities. The Work of the UCSC Educational Partnership Center. She enjoys time with her family, gardening, choir singing, and riding her bicycle to campus each day.

Gema Cardona, Ph.D.

Director of Research, Evaluation, and Innovation

Gema Cardona, Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley), is a critical scholar and researcher in education. Dr. Cardona self-identifies as a first-generation college student from a low-income immigrant family from Guanajuato, Mexico. Her research is situated at the intersection of community engagement, critical race theory (CRT), critical pedagogy, and critical methodologies. As a researcher, she employs testimonio and plática methodologies situated in experiential knowledge and critical healing practices. As an educator, she practices Freirean principles of emancipatory and liberatory education to empower college students to be critical thinkers and bridge theory with practice.

Dr. Cardona holds a Ph.D. in Critical Studies of Race, Class, and Gender from UC Berkeley, an Ed.M. in Education from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Sociology from Mills College. She enjoys time with her family, cooking, and exploring new hiking trails.

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Shaowei Chen, Ph.D.

COSMOS Faculty Director

Shaowei finished his undergraduate studies in China in 1991 with a B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of Science and Technology of China, and then went to Cornell University receiving his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Following a postdoctoral appointment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he started his independent career in Southern Illinois University in 1998. In summer 2004, he moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently a professor of Chemistry and the faculty director of the UCSC COSMOS program. In addition to science, he enjoys travel, good food, and reading.

Colleen Cruz

EPC Finance Manager

Colleen has been working in financial grant management for over 6 years. Before coming to UC Santa Cruz, she was the Business Manager for 4 GEAR UP partnership grants and 1 state GEAR UP grant at Utah State University. Colleen currently oversees the budgets and finances for all 8 programs at the EPC and the recently awarded Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative. She is very passionate about her work and supports the EPC’s vision of helping every student have access to and be successful in college.

Colleen holds a B.A. in Accounting from Utah State University. She loves spoiling her grandkids, spending time with family and friends, traveling, and learning new hobbies.

Shelly Horn

Program Director, EAOP & Access

Shelly has spent over ten years partnering with youth to center their voices in educational experiences. She is excited to serve as the Program Director for EAOP and Access programs at UCSC. Prior to her role here, she has worked to develop youth programming that supports the whole student and family with community schools and arts after school programming in New York City. Shelly is passionate about creating spaces that support and celebrate the creative and dynamic expressions and desires of young people, which ultimately uplifts all of us! 
Shelly holds a B.A in Journalism and Communications from the Ohio State University. She loves to sing, dance, be in community, make herbal medicines and learn new things!

John Leopold

Central Coast K–16 Regional Collaborative Director

John Leopold is the Director of the Central Coast K–16 Regional Collaborative. He brings over 20 years of experience in the public sector, having served as a Cabrillo College Trustee for eight years and as a Board member of Pacific Collegiate School, a California charter school. John served 12 years as Santa Cruz County Supervisor, where he founded the award-winning Live Oak Cradle to Career collective impact project. Building a parent-centered collaborative that focused on good health, good education, and building good character, Cradle to Career increased test scores and improved community engagement among monolingual Spanish-speaking parents. This success led to the project’s expansion throughout Santa Cruz County. As Supervisor, John also created new partnerships that led to the construction of the Live Oak Boys & Girls Club and Leo’s Haven, the first all-accessible park in the county. John holds a B.A. in Politics from UC Santa Cruz. In his spare time, he serves on the Board of the Sacred Steel Summit, an annual gathering of African-American gospel musicians.

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Sonia Ramos

Director, Cal-SOAP

Sonia has proudly served as the Director of the San José Cal-SOAP Consortium since 2004. Sonia has passionately worked with first-generation and low-income schools, students and families for over 15 years. Born and raised in Visalia, CA, the daughter of migrant farmworkers and the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, Sonia found her passion for serving underrepresented students as the program coordinator for the Magical School Bus Ride, a UCSC partnership through the L.A. Basin Initiative, and continued her commitment through work with the UCSC Upward Bound Math and Science Program (UBMS) and Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP). Sonia holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Sonia enjoys time experimenting with new food recipes, catering for friends and family, music, traveling, nature and hanging at the beach.

Sierra Schneider

Director of EPC Development

Director of K-12 STEM Programs & UCSC MESA College Prep Program (MCP)

Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Sierra Schneider moved to California in 1998 and to Santa Cruz in 2005. She joined the UC Santa Cruz Educational Partnership Center (EPC) in 2009 after over a decade of working with students in outdoor education and personal challenge growth work all over California, Arizona, and Tennessee. In total, she has 25+ years of experience in residential and outdoor science education, including 12+ years in support of several pre-college outreach programs at the EPC. Her B.A. in Environmental Studies from the Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an M.A. in Holistic Counseling Psychology and Buddhist Psychology from John F. Kennedy Univ. are reflective of her background working with students in nature and her commitment to the support of the whole student. Sierra believes in the power of experiential education to support the students we serve in their emerging identities as scientists, researchers, and young adults. 

Outside of her work with EPC, Sierra is an artist and a writer and has exhibited her work in galleries around Santa Cruz and Northern California. She draws great inspiration from the mountains and coast of Santa Cruz County.