From Soldier to a Community College Student to UCLA Transfer Alumni

On my first day of college, I carried a book bag in hand and an M16 rifle on my back. I can still distinctly remember that evening like it was a few weeks ago. I was so excited and nervous and exhausted all at once. For years, I had dreamt of attending college and there I was in the middle of the Balkans about to take the first step towards accomplishing my goal.

During 2014 Graduation

I had never attended college prior to this so I had normalized my experience. This is what college was in my eyes: soldier by day and student by night. I was only able to take three courses during my one-year deployment to Kosovo. Instructors from the University of Maryland, Europe would come to our military base and offer evening classes (all paid by the military). Nonetheless, as the only enlisted soldier in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps trial defense section, I was expected to be a soldier before being a student.  

I can remember since I was in high school that my only dream was to go to college to become a lawyer. However, after scoring high on an aptitude test administered by recruiters in my high school, military recruiters began to call my home. They told me and my mother that the military offered a 100% financial assistance program. Being from a socioeconomically low-income family, my mother urged me to join. With five children of her own at that time, my mother knew she would never be able to afford paying for college for me. During the summer after my 11th grade year – at the time I should have been preparing to submit applications for college – I turned 17-years-old and enlisted in the Army with the permission of my mother.

After, I completed my contractual duty in the military, I enrolled into my local community college, Mount San Antonio College. I had enrolled with the goal of attaining an associate degree in Child Development and become a preschool or kindergarten teacher. Once I started taking courses, I decided to change my major to Criminal Justice. I participated in the honors program but did not become involve in any extracurricular activities during my time there. I eventually became interested in transferring to a four-year university under the encouragement of a professor.

There was a shortage of counselors during my time there and the wait-time for an appointment was approximately 3-4 weeks. As a result, I decided to follow the general education plan instead of following up with academic counselors regularly. I navigated the community college system on my own. When I finally did meet with a counselor, I had over 90 credit units and I had missed the deadline to apply to four-year institutions for the new academic year. I decided to continue attending community college and take courses that were of my interest while I waited for the university application season to start again. I had planned to apply to California State Universities (CSUs) because those was the only university system I had been exposed to.

During one of my honor courses, one professor encouraged us to apply to University of California (UCs) universities and explained to us the difference between the CSU and UC system. She highly encouraged her students to apply to as many universities as possible. If it had not been for her encouragement and her taking the time to explain to me the different types of higher education institutions, I would not have ever applied to UCLA.

I was accepted to several UCs and CSUs, and I needed to decide where to attend. I kept stepping into campuses instantly knowing that I did not belong there. I remember stepping out of the bus into the UCLA campus, and being on the phone with a friend. “This is it! You don’t understand, THIS SCHOOL IS FOR ME!” I told him as I looked around campus and thought to myself that I did not need to look any further than Royce Hall. I transferred into UCLA in the summer of 2012 as an undergraduate in the Philosophy department. I ended up receiving the prestigious Regents Scholar scholarship which allowed me to attend UCLA (along with my financial aid) without student loans.

The Transfer Day and Transfer Summer Program (TSP) offered by the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) helped me to adapt to the institutional culture of UCLA. This doesn’t go to say that I did not have a difficult time adjusting to the academic rigor and social culture of UCLA. I got my first ‘B’ at UCLA and I also considered changing my major for quite a while. I was also working two part-time jobs and commuting from La Puente, CA for 2-3 hours each way 4-5 times a week. At the end, I stuck with my major and found ways to remain engage with my peers, organizations, and programs on campus.

My journey to UCLA was a long and difficult one, nonetheless, my two years there were filled with so much personal and academic growth. I learned so much from faculty and my peers both inside and outside the classroom. When I attended UCLA, I worked as a peer mentor for UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP) Program. I femtored a cohort of community college students throughout the academic year and assisted with their summer programs. My role was to assist them navigate the transfer system from high school to community college and ultimately to a top-tier research university such as UCLA through the lens of my own perspective and experiences as a transfer student. Until this day, I keep in touch with many of the students that I femtored.

Photo with activist icons Dolores Huerta Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. during a Labor & Workplace course

I graduated from UCLA in the summer of 2014 with a bachelor’s degree and college honors in philosophy and double minors in Chicanx studies and labor & workplace studies. During my time at UCLA, I was a member of student-run organization like Proyecto de Jornaleros, La Gente Newsmagazine, M.E.Ch.A, and the Raza Graduation committee. I was part of the Raza Graduation committee and participated in the M.E.Ch.A Calpulli Mentorship Program as a femtor. Through the labor & workplace studies minor and the UCLA Labor Center, I had articles published in Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation and Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. (make sure to check out these publications and La Gente Newsmagazine too).

During my time at UCLA, I became more engaged with activism and community organizing. In the summer following my graduation from UCLA, I interned with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the CLEAN Carwash Campaign in Los Angeles (shout out to all the amazing community builders and organizers in L.A.). I also worked in as an immigration consultant with a non-profit organization in L.A. and as an administrator and legal clinics coordinator at a private law school in San Diego most recently.

Helping fundraise for the 2014 Raza Graduation

I will be graduating with a Master of Education degree in higher education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in the upcoming week. During my time here I have continued to be involved in student-run organizations like HGSE Student Council, Comunidad Latinx and helped found the first Central American student organization at Harvard University, CASAH. For this commitment, I was awarded the Kolajo P. Afolabi Award for Commitment to Education Justice at the 2019 HGSE Alumni of Color Conference. Many of my passions and leadership skills that I display in these organizations could not be possible without the knowledge of social injustices and activism that I acquired at UCLA. I have met a handful of UCLA alums at Harvard as well that have brought some B-R-U-I-N swag to this institution.

My parents – immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico – were pushed out of high school. Without knowing how to navigate the educational system of higher education, I became the first person in my family to attain a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. As the oldest of seven children, I can only hope that my siblings, as well as other members of my communities, can have the courage to follow their dreams even if it takes them years to get there.

I plan to return to San Diego and to work at a community college in a student support role. I want to be able to assist students and their parents in understanding the way in which higher education works and how a student like me – from a low-income, first-generation, and non-traditional – can attend a prestigious school like UCLA with a full ride.

Most importantly, I can’t wait to go back to California and engage with the UCLA community once more. Let’s go BRUINS!!!!!! (insert 8-clap).

Mayra J. earned her bachelor’s degree in 2014 in Philosophy and double minors in Chicanx Studies and Labor & Workplace studies.