Have you met the UCLA Optimists? Over the next several months, the Bruin Blog will be highlighting our student Optimists. These current UCLA undergraduates will give you insight into the application process and tips, student life and culture, and what it means to be a Bruin.

img_3385-2As I stare through the arches of Royce Hall, I am cognizant of what it means to be a first-generation Latino college student from Southeast LA at UCLA. There have been few members from my community that pursue higher education, due to the lack of access and resources available to them. I grew up in a predominantly Latino immigrant community in the city of Huntington Park, CA located 30 minutes south of UCLA’s campus. Like several other individuals in my community, my parents immigrated to this country – specifically from Zacatecas, Mexico – before I was born in search for a better life. From a very early age, they stressed the importance of attaining a higher education.

Although my parents attempted to provide my older sisters and I with as many resources as possible in order to thrive, they were limited since they were not fluent in English and were not informed of the steps required to attend a prestigious university. We struggled in our large public high school to navigate the college application process – along with many of our peers. My path to UCLA was not a clear one. I did not have a reliable college counselor until I was a senior. I relied solely on federal TRIO programs like TELACU Talent Search that helped me navigate the college application process and develop skills in high school that I could take with me to my post-secondary education. My sisters, college counselor, and advisors from TELACU guided me through the process and opened up many doors that I believed once would always be shut. 

In 2010, when one of my eldest sisters was admitted, I made my way to UCLA for only the second time in my life. It was the first time I realized that attending an institution like this was not only a dream, but it could be a reality! My visit to UCLA from that point to my early years of high school made it clear that UCLA was the place for me. I worked hard throughout high school and finally senior year came – the time to apply to colleges. When I was beginning to hear back from schools, I anxiously waited for my screen to read those three short words: “Congratulations, You’re #UCLABound.” When it did, I had no doubt in my mind where I wanted to spend my next four years. I submitted my statement of intent to register (SIR) right then.

Once I got to UCLA I thought my path toward graduation would be clear. I came in with the mindset that I would go to law school and become a lawyer. I tried to convince myself that I would make my parents proud in this way. I knew that if I wanted to go into this field I would have to look for opportunities and internships that would help me discover my true passion, which fortunately at UCLA, there are seemingly endless opportunities that will support you in your career goals. I took English Composition 3SL with Professor Tara Prescott my first quarter at UCLA where I volunteered at 826LA, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students with their creative and expository writing. I worked with high school students on college applications, study skills, and navigating financial aid once they leave high school. It was through this volunteer opportunity I begin thinking that law school may not be the path I want to take.

I continued to apply to several legal internships during the summer of my freshman year to see if law was the profession I was destined to pursue. I was fortunate enough to have been selected for an exciting eight-week internship at Columbia University in New York City. It was an opportunity of a lifetime – the internship allowed me to work with one of the best attorney’s in New York and to also work alongside three other amazing undergraduate students as teaching assistants (TAs) for her Trial Advocacy course at Columbia. While I appreciated my internship and learned a lot, this opportunity made me realize where my life path was leading me, and it was not what I initially presumed. I discovered that working in higher education and education policy was where my true passions were. I wanted to provide forms of access to high school students seeking a higher education regardless of their unclear paths – I want to help students who came from backgrounds like me. Today, as Bruin Ambassador for Undergraduate Admission, I am able to do just that! I am doing the work I love and visiting schools in and around Los Angeles County to not only promote this amazing school but also be a resource to students like myself who felt lost navigating high school and struggled with the college application process.

UCLA at one point seemed like an unobtainable goal. Today, I am proud to say I am a first-generation, Latino student from an immigrant family. I am from Huntington Park, CA. I am proudly living my dream of being a Bruin. I hope you and students from all walks of life will join me.

Jimmy Aguilar is a second year undergraduate student at UCLA
majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education.