"I'm an involved type of person, so when I got here I thought, "Oh, man, I'm going to make the most of this!" Knips recalled.
Since that time, the third child of a Simi Valley widow and beauty salon operator has met one California governor (Gray Davis), one U.S. president (George W. Bush) and one foreign president (Mexico's Vicente Fox).
He also managed a tutoring project for disadvantaged youth, sold books door-to-door, organized a food drive for earthquake victims, founded a club, served as an officer in a fraternity, completed three internships and even performed in a salsa dancing troupe.
Knips' gusto paid off. He convinced UCLA College's Commencement Committee to select him as this year's student graduation speaker based on his passion for UCLA and his passion "for who I am as a result of UCLA."
"Donnie definitely has an enthusiasm that's infectious," said Deanna Nash, director of special events in UCLA College and head of the selection committee. Because UCLA does not select a valedictorian, delivering the graduation speech is as great an honor that an undergraduate can receive in any given year.
Knips focused his speech on "leadership and finding your passion and going with it." It's a subject with which he has considerable experience, having served as the junior class and student body president at Royal High School in Simi Valley.
Knips graduated cum laude from UCLA with a berth in the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa national honor society and College Honors. He's contemplating attending law school.
"He's very high energy," said Bonnie Lisle, a lecturer from whom Knips took two writing courses. "He was always on, but not in an irritating way. He was always prepared and ready to go — a real pleasure."
Still, a series of hardships easily could have prevented him from excelling. Knips, who has a twin brother, lost his father at age 6 in a car accident. His mother, Maria, a Mexican immigrant, struggled while raising Knips' four siblings and half-siblings alone.
"My mom speaks English but she doesn't speak it that well," Knips said. "I often have to sit her down and explain what I'm doing and why."
Initially interested in psychology, Knips eventually decided to major in political science and minor in public administration.
"I love politics and I'm very leadership oriented, so political science just seemed like the right fit," he said.
The climax of his academic career, Knips said, was participating in UCLA's Quarter in Washington, D.C., an opportunity that allowed him to meet President Bush as part of an internship with a think tank involved in health care policy.
"It was awesome to see the president speak and to have the background to follow what he was saying," Knips said. "I felt like part of the whole political network. I felt like an insider."
Knips said he got the same feeling as an intern with UCLA's community and government relations department, which put him in touch with Governor Davis and President Fox during the Mexican president's 2001 campus visit.
But when it came to learning important skills, Knips concedes that juggling all his various extracurricular obligations may have been the most valuable experience of all.
"If there's one thing I've learned, it's time-management," he said. "I sit down every Sunday and plan my next two weeks down to the minute. I even plan my downtime."