Early on in my schooling, I internalized messages that college was not for me. As a first-generation, low-income, non-traditional Chicano student, I clearly remember being told by my high school science teacher to “get used to taking order at McDonald’s” after him accusing me of being drunk. In addition to these messages, I was also raised in a toxic environment where I endured drug addiction. Those messages coupled with my upbringing impacted my academic performance. Although I had a difficult and non-traditional journey to higher education, these are the experiences I drew from to push forward to transfer to a four-year university.
I graduated high school with a GPA of 1.46, thinking I was prepared for college. I was wrong; I enrolled in community college but quickly discovered the educational path I was on was tailored to meet expectations of the workforce and not the classroom. In addition to poor preparation, my family was experiencing financial hardship. I had to step into the role of head of the household and work a full-time job to contribute financially to my home. My grades were impacted by new responsibilities, resulting in me leaving college. After ten years of working, senior management told me I would not get anywhere professionally because of my “ghetto” habits. I realized in that instance no matter how hard I worked, society had a perspective of me based on my outward appearance and educational attainment. I quit my job, re-enrolled in college and obtained three part-time jobs that would accommodate my school schedule and help make ends meet. Although I worked three part-time jobs, I was able to graduate from El Camino College and successfully transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Prior to attending UCLA, I never envisioned myself attending a UC, yet alone transferring. While at El Camino College, I had the honor to be femtored (female mentored) by Professor Herrera-Thomas. A lot of experiences with educators and administration throughout my academic trajectory were negative, so one day after class, she asked me where I planned to transfer and I answered in a blasé manner and mentioned a local state school. She continued to ask me why I was only considering that particular school and not a top research university like UCLA. I was upset and walked away abruptly. My femtor’s comment was one of the first in my academic career that validated my potential and intellect. From that moment on, my perspective changed and I made it my mission to pursue UCLA as a transfer option. In the spring of 2015, I attended the Student Transfer Outreach Mentor Program (STOMP) Conference where I was immersed in a ton of resources such as student panels and an educational equity program, Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP). Both STOMP and CCCP hold a huge space in my heart because they changed my life forever.
In the summer of 2015, while still being a community college student, I was awarded a scholarship by CCCP at UCLA, where I took my first Chicana/o Studies course. The course gave me insight into the Chicana/o struggle with educational equity in the U.S. and highlighted the 1946 Mendez v. Westminster desegregation case. This lawsuit is significant because it stopped institutional practices from segregating Mexican and Mexican-American students into “Mexican Schools.” This course introduced me to research by giving me the opportunity to interview historical figures like Silvia Mendez, from Mendez v. Westminster. Reflecting on my personal experience, I realized not much has changed since then. Returning back to my community college, I continued to receive mentorship and I eventually transferred to UCLA in the fall of 2016. The experiences of the Chicana/o community in the desegregation case and my own experiences inspired me to pursue my B.A. degree in Chicana/o Studies at UCLA.
A great deal of my success as a transfer was due to the support I received from CCCP. The guidance I received made me value mentorship and led me to my current job as a peer mentor at El Camino College. In my role, I provide academic support to first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students by assisting them in course planning as well as the UC and California State University application process. This position has allowed me to identify the social and institutional constructs that bind marginalized populations. This insight has provided me with a platform to speak to other students and encourage them to question social constructs and challenge assumptions made about our communities. This experience inspired me to conduct an independent research project addressing the narratives of resiliency of non-traditional Latino men pursuing higher education. This research allowed me to focus on the narratives of other Latino men and give a voice to those narratives, which often get left out when documenting data.
My passion for research led me to conduct research in the Netherlands. This site allowed me to gain a better understanding of diversity in other countries and social justice efforts beyond the U.S. In the Netherlands, I learned about political engagement, community activism, and civic responsibility with a focus on the African diaspora currently present in Europe. I conducted an independent research project addressing the inequalities first-generation, immigrant/refugee students face on their campus. I came back with the realization that my identity gives me agency to support equity and access by making myself visible throughout campus. With this consciousness and responsibility, I got the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. with 20 other UCLA students and our chancellor. This trip gave me the experience to continue to question social structures with groups that advocate for educational access, UCLA administrators and faculty, Capitol Hill staffers and U.S. Representatives. This experience reinforced my passion for education, diversity, and inclusion beyond myself and led me to pursue and obtain a position as the student coordinator and facilitator for the STOMP Conference. Through this position, I learned to give back to the conference that allowed me to visualize myself at UCLA. In addition, I learned what it means to organize and facilitate a conference by building networks with professors, recruiters, and student leaders.
Despite all my academic involvement, I have been able to find a home and community through my fraternity, Gamma Zeta Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first Latino interest fraternity at UCLA. I was intrigued about my fraternity because of its strong dedication to uplift other men of color through academic excellence, community service, and the maintenance of Latino culture through brotherhood. The organization was everything I stand for and I decided to join. Often times, many people assume the worst about fraternities. However for me, my fraternity has allowed me to be myself and still be a scholar. Furthermore, it has allowed me to develop my leadership through my role as the historian and support an environment that supports other Latino men in higher education.
As I am preparing to graduate, UCLA has prepared and equipped me with the resources necessary to make a positive impact in society and academia. I will be pursuing graduate school at Columbia University at Teachers College in New York City, where I will obtain a Masters of Arts in Higher and Postsecondary Education in the Department of Organization and Leadership. When I think of why UCLA? I like to say there was an indescribable change in me when I visited the campus through STOMP and the course work I took through CCCP. I thought to myself, it would only be fair to allow for the complete change to be done at UCLA, which is why I committed to the university. UCLA has opened so many doors for me, has allowed me to visit countries I never envisioned myself visiting, and has given me a community that I am forever grateful for. I live by a quote, “we are all one choice away from a completely different life,” and my choice to attend UCLA changed my life completely! By far one of the best decisions I have ever made.