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Vaga Graduate - Class of 2018

Luisa Lopez, MSW

Master of Social Work

New York University, Silver School

Graduate Student Association, President

"I always knew I wanted to make an impact in the world, make my voice and opinions heard, and work towards making my community a better place. When I started my master’s degree in Social Work, I had no idea that I would have so many opportunities to do that on a stage that is much larger than the community where I grew up. I come from an extended family of academics so that desire to use education as a tool to better myself and the lives of those around me was instilled almost at birth. However, as a daughter of Dominican immigrants dealing with the everyday struggles that many immigrants face in this country, such as poverty, racism, and structural barriers to success, I knew I was going to have to work twice as hard as everyone around me in order to claim success.


I took that work ethic to the next level at NYU and learned how I could leverage my hard-earned education, my passion for equity and social justice, and my desire to advocate for those that cannot advocate for themselves into a career that would place me in those rooms where decisions are made for the benefit of all the citizens of this country.  It is my intention to use all that I’ve learned to enter a career in policy development at the highest levels of government, bringing social justice-focused solutions to the many challenges that we all now face. In my address to the graduating class of 2018, I encouraged my peers to “take risks, resist, disrupt, and rebuild, so that no other group can claim a greater advantage than another”; that is exactly what I intend to do as I take my first steps into the world."

Iris Barragan

Bachelors in Psychology

California State University of Northridge

"My name is Iris Barragan, and I’m proud to say I am a first generation LATINA graduate. My amazing parents inspired me to pursue an education but my son Elijah inspired me to finish. When I found out I was pregnant I was worried and stressed because I didn’t know how I was going to manage being an employee, a student, a wifey, and a MOM. I had to deal with negative talk saying that I was going to drop out of school and not finish but I did not let that define me. I vowed to myself that I was going to continue and I was going to finish no matter what sacrifices I had to make. I wanted this more than ever now and I knew that I had to do it for him; to give him a better life and to be able to set a positive example. Giving up was just not an option. The journey was long and hard, and even harder with a newborn but it wasn’t impossible. It took me longer than most and so many tears but being able to have my son there watching me cross that stage and cheering for me was worth every single tear, sleepless night and every early morning. Now I truly understand the meaning of “Nothing worth having comes easy”. THIS ONE IS FOR YOU ELIJAH <3

 I would like to say if you’re a VAGA and this shoe fits “KEEP GOING MAMA, YOU GOT THIS”.

Kennia Reyes
Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, Minor in Criminal Justice Studies
San Francisco State University

I am a first-generation, Mexican American graduating from a 4-year university with a B.A. in Social Work. Being raised in Pacoima, I experienced first-hand the inequalities, poverty, lack of resources, language-barriers, and many more that families in my community faced. Because of this, I have been motivated to make a difference in the world, but most importantly, in the city I grew up in. Going into my field I always had a passion to work with at-risk youth by establishing bridge programs that’ll lead them to college and provide them the resources to do so. However, given the current political climate we live in, I have grown a desire to work with immigrant children, youth and families by helping connect them with resources they need but most importantly, advocate for social change. At the rise of my education, I have realized that the community that needs me the most is the immigrant community which is why I’ve decided to make it my current focus and save focusing on at-risk youth for my future endeavors.
After completing my BASW at San Francisco State, I will move back to the San Fernando Valley where I will be attending CSU Los Angeles to obtain a Masters in Social Work. Ever since I was a young girl, I knew that my education was one of my greatest assets and being granted the opportunity to continue expanding my knowledge is a dream come true. Being able to live through my parent’s dream and knowing that one day I’ll be able to use my degrees to give back to my communities makes me the happiest. I cannot wait to see what goals I will conquer next.
With that said, this degree is dedicated to my parents, my boyfriend, my family, my friends, and last but certainly not least my community. To my Parents: Ustedes son mi admiración, gracias por siempre apoyarme y por motivarme a seguir luchando... sin su dedicación y esfuerzos, no sería lo que hoy soy. Los amo. I hope that my story motivates all to believe that anything is possible. Follow your dreams, believe in yourself, and most importantly, never stop being a VAGA. ARRIBA MEXICO!

Ariana Gonzalez, M.S

Masters of Science in Counseling with a Specialization in School Psychology

California State University Northridge, College of Education 

"When I was in middle school I knew I wanted a career related to children and education. My passion was always with special education because I always felt that children with disabilities need a strong advocate in the school setting and life in general. I graduated Fall 2015 with my Bachelors of Arts in Child and Adolescent Development and applied for grad school immediately after. Thankfully, I was accepted into the School Psychology program in Spring 2016 and started the rigorous three-year program that Fall.  Grad school was honestly the most challenging journey I ever had to endure. It was expected that it would be hard, but I could not have imagined the journey I went through. I had to lean on many people for support and find ways to battle my own misconceptions.  Now at the end I can say the struggle was 100% worth it! My family, fiancé and our future were my inspiration to finish. I knew I had to finish to prove it to myself that I could but also for my parents. My parents were my backbone and worked really hard to get me through college and I wanted to make them proud. NEVER in a million years did I think I was going to give them a master’s degree, but I did! Now I hope to inspire my niece, little cousins, and future children to pursue a career they are just as passionate about and I will be by their side 100% of the way!

I now hold my Masters of Science in Counseling with a specialization in School Psychology and I graduated with a job offer!! I start my career in July with a school district that I love to work for! My continued goal is to be a strong advocate for students and their families, especially those with special needs."

Liliana Garcia

M.A in Education option in Social and Cultural Analysis of Education 

CSU Long Beach 


"Growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico I witnessed social, economic, and educational inequalities from a very young age. I learned about poverty, political corruption, classism, and racism through my experiences in Oaxaca. Despite such reality, I viewed education as a weapon I can utilize to understand the roots of human oppression and contribute to change. I saw the relationship between society and education and knew pursuing higher education was something I had to do (even if I had no idea what I was getting myself into and have failed multiple times). Moving to the U.S, all the sacrifices my parents had to undergo and are still undergoing, I knew I had to take full advantage of education here. Plus I have always enjoyed learning and knew it would pave the way to wherever I decided to go! 


My parents and family have always been my inspiration to pursue education. Their upbringing and experiences have motivated me to pursue higher education for myself in a way that it could help us as a family unit. The multiple times I wanted to give up through this journey, I felt like I could not since my success is also theirs and has a lot to do with their support. They have supported me in all the ways they physically, emotionally, and financially can. With this degree I want to provide for them and be part of a larger change needed in many of our communities. Social inequalities on a local or international level have been my motivator as well. I am an activist at heart but with this degree I plan to work with and for my community in Los Angeles and Oaxaca in various issues affecting us. I want to become a college advisor to serve first-generation college students at the same time actively participating in dismantling issues faced by our communities."

Angelica Moreno

Bachelor of Arts in Sociology

California State University Northridge


“I’m sorry to say but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you. You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch…You’ll come down from that Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” Dr. Seuss. I quickly had a bang and hang up when I received an email stating I was dropped from my classes for not paying on time going into my third year at UCSB. It felt like I was hung up in a pricklely perch My life quickly took a sharp turn. It took me a while to get out of my funk. Six years after I decided to leave my dream school, I graduated from, what was my last resort and I don’t regret it one bit. When I received my acceptance to my dream school, UCSB in 2010 I was ecstatic! I didn’t know how I was going to pay my way through, but all I knew was that I was attending to my dream school! I decided to tale out loans, even parents took out loans, and two years in I found myself drowning in debt, and unable to pay for my classes. I started loosing interest in school and falling into a small depression. I quickly went to an advisor and told him I was deciding to leave UCSB because I was financially stressed and it was taking a toll on my education, he told me “it took me 10 years to get my degree, there’s no time limit” I remember thinking to myself, ten years is a long time, I don’t want to be in school for 10 years. I made the decision to move back home, in the San Fernando Valley and work while I attended a Community College. It was difficult at times when people would ask what I was doing back home and at times I felt discouraged. I had left one of the top schools in California, I felt as if I was moving backwards. Six years after I left UCSB I finally obtained my degree. It took me four years of Community College to finally transfer to CSUN my last choice school school back in 2010. My dad had told me to go to CSUN in the first place, pero como terca I was set on UCSB. I was so young and full of dreams that I didn’t think of the consequences of debt, all I cared was the fact that I had been accepted. I am a daughter of immigrants who have worked day and night so my siblings and I can have what my parents didn’t. Being a first generation graduate in my family, and paving a path not only for my siblings, but also for future latino/a generations is what motivated me to pursue and finish my education. I work with children and seeing them each day reminds me of why I need to continue my career in education, I need to help these young children understand that as a minority we need to rise. That is why my journey in pursuing education does not end here, I plan on pursuing a masters degree in College advising to help those like me, because I know I am not the first or the last Latina to have faced these obstacles. I also learned that it’s not about where you graduate from, it’s about the journey and people you meet along the way, the lessons you learn and the experiences. With that said It doesn’t matter how long it takes to achieve your goal, what matters is that you finish. Life might set you back but what matters is the climb not the time. Un-slumping myself was not easily done but like my mom and dad always say “El querer es poder.”  

Ani Keshishyan
Traditional Bachelors of Science in Nursing

Mount Saint Mary's University  

"An education is both a privilege and an honor, and to have the opportunity to obtain one is a something I owe to my parents. My mother and father are both first generation immigrants from Yerevan, Armenia. After a short visit to my parent’s country, I realized that the idea of earning a degree is much more far fetched for the people living there. Naturally, this pushed me to achieve my goals more vigilantly, but education has always been a priority of mine. My mother always taught me that although the women in our culture were not expected to earned degrees or work, I could change that pattern. She was not given this option, as she was married and had me by the age of 20. She did everything to make sure that I could live my life independent of a man, and on my own skills and merritt. She helped me get my first job at our local mall in town, and since has been my biggest supporter on this journey. When I began volunteering at the hospital. I was inspired and intrigued by the nurses I had the pleasure of working with. They always seemed so intelligent, organized, and quick to act when a patient or situation needed attendance. Connecting with patients, hearing their story, and making a difference in their day became something I looked forward to each shift. I was devastated when I applied to nursing school the first time around, only to be rejected by each school I had sent an application to. But instead of letting this hold me back, I decided to re-enroll in Community College, take a few extra classes and reapply the following year. I got my EMT license to beef up my resume and was blessed to be accepted to not 1, but all of the nursing schools I applied to in the following year. By my second year of nursing school, I knew in my heart that I had chosen a career that would satisfy my soul. I was offered a job as a Certified Nursing Assistant at one of my favorite hospitals, UCLA Medical Center.I am graduating with my Bachelors of Science in Nursing and my Public Health Nursing Certificate from Mount Saint Mary’s University in the class of 2018.  Now that I have finished my undergraduate education, I wait to take my nursing boards with the hope of finding a position as a New Grad Registered Nurse and continue this journey in health care.The rest of the story is yet to be written, but the idea of pursuing a master’s degree and continuing into advanced practice as a nurse interests me. I offer the same advice to any and every one who asks me how I did it. NEVER give up, KEEP PUSHING, re-apply, re-submit, get a second opinion, do whatever it takes because you are UNSTOPPABLE and every goal you set for yourself will become a reality if you decide to make it one."

Danielle Burnette

Masters in Social Work

New York University


"My life has been unique needless to say. Growing up in Chicago, New York, and Miami. I did my undergrad at Indiana University, and while I was there I experienced some trials and tribulations, that I was fortunate enough to overcome. I remember being severely depressed, and my mother telling me that one day I was going to be able to help other people who were going through what I have gone through. Law School was the next step for me, because I had always had a passion for criminal justice and helping people, but the more soul searching I did, I decided to look into Social Work.

I had always wanted to go to NYU, and I remember my guidance counselor in high school told me it would be a reach, so I never applied. I finally got the courage to apply to the MSW program and the rest is history. I had always been passionate about the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, prison reform, and education inequality. Then when I got to NYU I was fortunate enough to be placed with an advisor/mentor who placed me in internships that allowed me to gain more knowledge in these areas and utilize the tools that I already had to be an advocate on these issues. My future goal post graduate school is to work with some type of reentry program. My first internship was at a reentry program and it dealt with adolescent males on Riker’s Island/on site at the agency. The program focused on empowering young men to avoid involvement in the criminal justice system by reshaping their futures through educational achievement, meaningful employment, strengthening developmental needs and emotional well-being and financial independence. I would love to work for another agency that has similar values."

Brenda Hernandez

Bachelor of Arts in Sociology

California State University, Northridge

“I always knew that I wanted to continue my education after I graduated high school. Growing up, both my parents did everything in their power to support my brother and I. They both immigrated to United States at a very young age. My father was born in Michoacán, Mexico & my mother was born in San Miguel, El Salvador. They sacrificed their education so they could financially support themselves. I was born & raised in the San Fernando Valley in a small Hispanic based city called Sylmar. Shortly after I graduated high school, I became pregnant with my first child. I found myself full of mixed emotions because I didn’t know what the future held for me as a young mom or how I was going to financially support my son. I decided to move forward with my education and enrolled at Los Angeles Mission College when I was 6 months pregnant. I obtained my A.A degree in Sociology four years later. Prior to graduating from LA Mission College, I had given birth to my 2nd child right before finals. In fall of 2016 I started my first semester at CSUN to pursue my B.A in Sociology & after much determination I obtained my degree in exactly 2 years. After my first year at CSUN, I became a single mother and found myself wanting to quit school. There was a point where I battled depression, I had no motivation to get up in the morning and didn’t even want to get out of bed. However, I accepted the things that were out of my control & was able to gain the strength to move forward. I knew that I had one job and that was to be the best example to my son and daughter, I wanted to teach them that regardless of the obstacles that life throws at us, anything is possible. As a mom I have a role to be the best role model to my children by teaching them that the sky truly is the limit. Being a single mom, full time student, and working a part time job hasn’t been easy. I could proudly say that my biggest motivation in pursuing an education were my children & my parents. My parents were high school drop outs and I know that I’ve made them extremely proud with furthering my own education and with whom this would not have been possible. I plan to continue my education so I can obtain my Master’s in Nursing and eventually become a Nurse Anesthetist. Being a female Latina has its obstacle as we are highly underestimated in several ways within society, but being able to show society that regardless of ones gender or race anything is possible if you set your mind to it, has been one of my greater accomplishments."

Jennifer Chicas

Bachelor of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Entrepreneurship

Florida International University

It took me almost 6 years to finish my bachelor’s degree. When I graduated I didn’t imagine I would accomplish my dream of pursuing an education out of state. When I would hear about my boss’ children visiting universities to choose from after they graduated high school, I thought college, not to mention out of state college, was only for the elite. I didn’t know if college was option for me nor did I know how I would pay for it myself. So I focused on working a lot, being responsible, and finishing at least an AA. I told myself, once I finish that, then I’ll decide if I want to invest into a university level tuition. Everything about loans terrified me but somehow I knew my dreams weren’t meant to remain in Los Angeles. I took a trip for my 21st birthday to Vegas and Miami and that trip opened my eyes. I visited universities by myself got an idea of how I could make my goal a reality, and I did. I picked up a second job, saved a lot of money and arrived in Miami a year later. When I arrived in Miami I was working 3 jobs to pay for my housing and out of state tuition for one class at the time. With many calculated risks, financial commitments, repetitive classes, I finished my degree in I/O Psychology and Entrepreneurship.


            My sister was my biggest motivation to pursue my education. For me, she has been the person she wished she had when she was her younger self. As the oldest of 3 children, living in an underserved community, my sister had to grow up rather quickly. My parents depended on her a lot throughout my upbringing. Going away to college for her was a lot more challenging since she felt responsible to look after us. My sister did everything in her power to expose me to new environments and get me out of the underserved community we grew up in. She always encouraged me to push my limits, travel, get out of my comfort zone, and arrive with authenticity. When we leave our comfort zones is really when we get to know ourselves, decide what it is we want, and who we want to be. My dream was to pursue an education out of state, I did it. What I plan on doing with my degree is help people in organizations build/maintain organizational culture, assist in training and transitions, encourage diversity and inclusion, and help businesses stay competitive in a global market. Eventually I want to open up my own business/consulting firm that helps youth in underserved communities pursue higher education, trades, and professions.

Nisa Elizabeth Guzman

Master of Social Work

New York University, Silver School Of Social Work

     "Where I come from, my destiny was pre-determined from birth. I'm not supposed to be where I am today. Where I come from, being a minority meant that I would not succeed; it meant that I would fall into this vicious cycle created by poverty and other injustices. Growing up in the Bronx and being Latina meant that I would go down a broken path. Growing up, I had someone who planted an inspirational seed in my mind. Though my mother was strict and made sure I focused on my studies, it was her twin brother who planted that seed; my mother helped water it. “There is more to the world than the four walls you call home (and by the walls, I mean your “hood)” he said. These were words that were repeated to me on birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and family gatherings. These words were not only repeated but they were demonstrated with actions. Like me, he graduated with a master’s degree from New York University’s Silver School of Social Work. Today, I am proud to say that he was the first man and I am the first woman in my family to receive a master’s degree.

     As a social worker, I seek to empower others to reach for their dreams; to be a role model for those who have lost hope. I hope to advocate for those who have not found their voices; to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and to join others in the fight for social justice. I want to plant inspirational seeds in people's mind that helps propel them into the best them they can be.  I want people to know that they have control over their own stories. All they have to do is pick up and pen and write a different ending." 

Ada Canelas 

Master of Arts in Social Work 

Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland


"As a child, I knew that the key to getting everything I wanted was through education. I watched my parents struggle everyday because they were in a country that did not “belong” to them and, going back to El Salvador was not an option. Everything I do, I do it for my family. My siblings are my greatest motivator because one day, I want them to be better than their big sister. I want to become the person I so desperately needed when I was younger. I have accomplished something that feels so unreal but, plan to do so much with this new dream. I want to help my community become more aware of mental illnesses because they affect more people than we know. There is such a negative stigma associated with various mental health diagnoses and my goal is to make others see that we all face different issues. It’s what we choose to do with them that matters."

Stephanie Jimenez Velez

Master of Social Work

New York University, Silver School of Social Work

Six months after I was born, I was diagnosed with dwarfism, a severe skeletal disorder, which caused my mother, who immigrated from Medellin, Colombia, to feel extremely concerned about my future capabilities. Throughout my childhood, I recall going to medical appointments on a daily basis; the third-floor pediatric waiting room at NYU Langone’s Hospital for Joint Diseases became my living room. Patients who had a physical/cognitive impairment became my siblings, and eventually, the hospital became my home. Now as an adult, I understand and appreciate the extraordinary work of all the clinical social workers at the hospital because my mother and I could not have overcome enormous obstacles without the help of the entire medical team. As such, my long-term goal is to serve as an advocate, counselor, and mediator to patients of all age groups with serious medical conditions. I seek the opportunity to further help patients and families cope with emotional, social, physical, and economic stressors that accompany a serious illness. More precisely, I aim to be the resourceful bridge between patient, caregiver, and the interdisciplinary team, with an emphasis on those whose native language is not English. Graduating from NYU Silver School of Social was a dream which turned into my reality. If it was not for my mother I would not be the leader that I am today. Gracias Mami! #proudlatina
Jocelyn Garrido
Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and Spanish
University of Redlands

My name is Jocelyn Garrido and I come from this little no name place from the Inland Empire called Bloomington. My parents inspired me to pursue a college education because they instilled in me from a young age the importance of having an education. I remember my dad telling me that if one day I lose it all I will always have my education and it is something that can never be taken away from me. With my degrees, I plan one becoming an elementary school teacher and ultimately a bilingual elementary school teacher. I want to be that somebody for that someone. I want to be that somebody in a child's life who cared about them, who wanted the best for them, who believed in them and always loved them. As a teacher, I want to remind my students of their potential and be living proof that where you come from does not determine how far you can go in life.



Karen Lemus

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology

California State University, Northridge

"This is hitting home so much right now because I am the first in my family to go to college. Being the only child I didn’t have no one to look up to or follow their footsteps. I graduated high school and went straight to UC Riverside and knew it wasn’t for me. I came back home and never stopped my journey. I went to Pierce College and got my A.A. Two years later, I transferred to CSUN not knowing what an adventure I was going to have. Being the first in my family to go to college is what inspired me to go after this goal and finish it. Believe me it wasn't easy at all. I wanted to give up so many times and would ask myself, "is this what you really want?" But, I was so power hungry to get to the finish line, that I had to suck it up and keep on pushing myself. From all nighters, to spending hours at the library, to drinking so much coffee and wine... I DID IT! I have always enjoyed speaking, helping, and advising people. This is when I decided why not focus on advising college students during their college years as an academic advisor. My plans now are to further my education and go for my masters in college counseling. Don't ever let someone tell you that you can't do it. Prove them wrong! I am proud to be a first generation Latina college graduate."

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