Vagas with Degrees Series is a platform that features trailblazers and highlights/celebrates the success of women of color earning degrees by sharing their untold stories with the world
Class of 2019
To conclude our 2019 series, we are thrilled to spotlight one high school graduate & future VAGA With a Degree!
Melissa Serrano is a Sylmar High School graduate from Sylmar, California. Excelling in academics, she was class Valedictorian, graduating with a cumalitive GPA of 4.3. Melissa has decided to pursue higher education and plans to attend University of California, San Diego this coming fall.
"When I think about the fact that I am a college student, I get emotional. As a first generation Hispanic daughter of two immigrants, I never thought that I would be able to leave my home to pursue higher education. Not to mention that I was raised in a low income community where students are not encouraged to dream outside the mountains that enclose the San Fernando Valley. I am majoring in Political Science so I can come back to the city of Pacoima and become involved in the local government. A degree from UCSD would allow me to find more ways to mobilize and challenge the institutionalized oppression that keeps people like myself in the valley.
I owe my success to my family. Without their love and encouragement, my dream of going to a University would not have come true. My older siblings are the first people in my life to introduce me to a college education and will always be an inspiration for my younger siblings and I. My greatest inspiration however are all the people in my community who are struggling to maintain a livelihood. I will always come back to the Valley and help those in need."
Guadalupe Ruelas Burgara (She, Her)
Master of Social Work
New York University
“My parents were robbed of an education since they were born in poverty in Mexico. At the time, it was required for them to pay to continue their education after grammar school, but they could not afford to do so. My mother taught herself to read and write in Spanish, but my father never learned to read or write. Due to a traumatic childhood, he began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Consequently, he lost his battle with drug addiction at the young age of 46. Shattered by my dad’s death, I promised in his honor to care for my family and continue my academic journey.
It has been a difficult journey filled with challenges and setbacks, but I had an excellent emotional support system from the minute I began my academic career at Los Angeles Valley College. Last month I graduated from my dream school New York University with a masters in Social Work. I have had countless professors who were amazing mentors. However, my mother’s strength has helped me beyond words. Although I would like to start my career working to support families and children in crisis, my ultimate goal is to become an academic advisor/counselor to support first-generation Latinx students like myself.”
Celeste Marquez (she/her)
Major in Film with an emphasis in Video Editing & minor in Marketing
California State University, Long Beach
"I am the eldest in my immediate family, so there was a lot of pressure for me to set an example for my younger sisters and cousins. I am one of the first of my family to attend and graduate college. Ever since I was a little girl, my parents encouraged me to strive for the best. There was never a question of IF I would go to college, the question was always WHERE. Throughout my school career, I studied hard and tried my best to get As in all my classes while working part time to pay for my tuition. I am proud to say that I am graduating with sum cum laude honors and an outstanding graduate award, presented by the Dean of CSULB.
I received my degree in film with an emphasis in video editing and marketing and I am hoping to accomplish great things in the film industry. It is uncommon for women to be successful and widely recognized directors and editors, especially women of color. With my career, I hope to help change this stigma. My goal is to create meaningful films and work with many diverse kinds of people. Through my work, I want to explore different cultures and help show others how amazing the world truly is. Eventually, I would like to open up my own production company and be my own boss, so that I may have the freedom to tell the stories that I believe need to be shared with the world."
Allie Acosta (She, Her, Hers)
Bachelor of Arts in Social Work
San Francisco State University
"I come from a strong chain of powerful women. Women that have faced the odds, beat them and maintained their grace throughout their battle. It only made sense for me to continue to be just as powerful.
I am a first-generation Latina raised by a single mom. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in my aunt’s home with her four children, mis primos hermanos. Emphasis on hermanos since they were the only siblings I ever knew. We grew up roaming the streets, exploring our neighborhood and getting in trouble by our parents.
In our community, we had no business being on those streets by ourselves but we have been vagos from the jump. My mom is the hardest on me for good reason. I am her only child and a woman nonetheless, as I come to understand the horrors of the world, I realize why she tried so hard to protect me from them.
My biggest inspiration comes from her. Since I was a little girl, my mom taught me to be rebellious and to break all of the rules I thought I needed to follow. She taught me to follow my heart and never look back. My heart lead me out of Sylmar High School’s magnet program to San Francisco State University.
At SFSU, I learned to utilize my radical nature in the form of activism which is what drew me to social work. After graduation, I will be attending San Diego State University’s MSW program with the ultimate goal of becoming a licensed clinician. Here’s to a lifetime of recognizing our traumas, working to heal from them healthily, and most importantly breaking the chain with future generations."
Crystal Victoria Luna. (she, her, hers)
Masters Degree in Communications, concentration in Professional
California State University Fullerton
"I don’t exactly remember what inspired me to pursue a higher education, but I vividly recall being a class clown and a student that did not care for her work in high school. By senior year in HS, that attitude caught up with me because my GPA at that time, determined my decision to only apply to California State University campuses. UCs and privates asked for requirements that I did not meet.
My name is Crystal Luna. I just graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master’s in Communication, concentration in Professional. For my undergraduate studies, I attended, California State University, Northridge where I received a BA in Sociology and minor in Chicana/o studies. I am a first generation in my family. I’d like to think I beat the odds, because I grew up in a low-income household, with a single mother. While education was instilled in me, college was not something we discussed at home. It‘s been just the two of us, so I refer to every accomplishment as ours, because it is.
It’s been an interest of mine to work in music and entertainment, but coming from a Mexican background, stability and a well-respected job has always been preferred. Having that in mind, and a BA in sociology to back me up, I applied to nonprofit organizations after college. I worked in the field of social services for four years; it was during that time that I was introduced to work that paved the way to where I am now.
Fast forward to today, I’ve added, artist interviews, concerts and live events to my resume. I’ve worked Bottlerock, Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas, Electric Daisy Carnival Orlando, Electric Zoo, Coachella, and Stagecoach. Artists I have interviewed include Jessica Audiffred, Jayceeoh, and SayMyName. My future career goal is to continue growing in this path I have created for myself. I enjoy the work I do on the production side, while I also have a ball writing articles and interviewing artists."
Martha D. Pereira, MSW (She/ Her/ Hers)
Masters in Social Work
New York University, Silver School
"On this journey I decided to take a risk and move across the country. I wanted something new and refreshing. I wanted to gain more than my masters degree. I wanted a bigger challenge, something that would help change me into a better me. I wanted to pick myself and I did. This journey taught me so much about myself and what I want out of life. During this time I I learned what it meant to be far away from my family. It meant I had to dig deep, find my NYC tribe and be in the now. I never realized how much my mother had prepared me for this journey. Every time I wanted to pack my bags, she would tell me “ Aun que las cosas esten deficiles, no te des por vencida.” Without her support and love I don’t think I would’ve made it. Those words helped me get through obtaining my masters in Social Work.
My mother use to be a case manager for a domestic violence women’s shelter. Through out her years there she would bring my sister and I to volunteer during our summer breaks and winter holidays. I was able to see the rewarding job my mother did as well as obtain a level of understanding for domestic violence survivors. My mother has taught me how advocating for others can change their perspective in life. She has always been an advocate for people and I have always admired her passion for helping others. My mother has taught me many things that school hasn’t and for that I’m forever grateful for her.
During my time at NYU I learned to advocate for myself and others. I gained my NYC tribe I am immensely grateful for. I hope to help my community be more aware of mental health illnesses and know where to obtain resources.I hope to advocate for those who have lost their voices. I hope to inspire other woman who look like me. This degree is dedicated to my mother Ana, whom I love so much."
Marissa Hernandez (She, Her, Hers, and Herself)
Master in Social Work
Cal State Dominguez Hills
"Growing-up I lost one of my best friends to drugs and alcohol. It was then when I decided I wanted to help others suffering from substance abuse. As I got older and began learning about the struggles my parents encountered while immigrating from Mexico I realized the sacrifice they made could not go in vain. I slowly started to have a passion for working with teens and families, specifically troubled youth of undocumented individuals. I promised my parents I would get through school and I would provide for them while also giving back to the community. Every day I am a day closer to my goal. Now, that I have my Master in Social Work my goal is to become licensed and eventually own my private practice targeting teens and a shelter for undocumented families who have come to the states in search of the “American Dream”."
Tiffani Marie Destiné (She/Her/Hers)
Master of Science in Human Resource Management
University of Southern California
"Being born to teenage parents and growing up in mostly a single parent household, I was taught that education was the one way out of being a statistic. When times were rough between my parents I always knew I could turn to education. While things were not always bad growing up, I always knew at a young age I wanted better for myself and my parents. All throughout primary school, I was the star student, no matter what battles I faced I always rose to the occasion. When I was working on my undergraduate degree my father passed away when I was 20, leaving behind my 2 younger brothers ( one not even born and the other who was not even 2 years-old yet). I knew my dad valued education and that was the one consistent thing in my life, him always cheering me on about my education(esp. higher education).
As my younger brothers continue to grow I want them to know that there is more to life than where you grow up and your circumstances do not define you and if you want to make a difference you have to get your education. With them now being 6 and 8 getting my masters was only the next step. I did this for not only myself, my parents, but for my two little brothers. “Started from the bottom now we’re here”
While, I still can’t believe that I just finished my Master’s in something I love doing, I know that I will make a difference. I currently work as a recruiter for a big tech company and I am so excited that having this degree is going to allow me to not only better myself, but my department as well by focusing on not only diversity but inclusion."
Master of Social Work, Azusa Pacific University, Class of 2019
My name is Cinthia Lopez and I am a first-generation, Chicana female who has just graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a Masters in Social Work. In high school, I was blessed to have been a part of the Upward Bound Harvey Mudd College that provided me with exposure to the possibility of going to college. In this experience I met various influential individuals that helped guide me in the correct path in high to be able to apply for college and dream of a better future for family and myself. It was because of Upward Bound that I was inspired to pursue higher education to then in return be able to give back to my community. I was the first individual in my family to complete my Bachelors degree from UCSB and now my Master’s degree from Azusa Pacific University.
Now as a Master of Social Work, I plan to be able to help others as I was helped in the past. I plan to work in addressing mental health within the Latino community specifically with children and families. Through my various internships and work experience working with children and families I seek to continue to be able to utilize what I have learned to continue to be a support for the community. Therefore, I am proud of my accomplishments and seek to continue to work to help others!
Fatima Carrillo (She/her/hers)
J.D., AnBryce Scholar
NYU School of Law
"Growing up, one of my mother’s favorite sayings was “nadie nace aprendida.” Over the years this has given me great comfort when working towards a new goal. My parents have been my biggest inspiration to pursue an education. To me, they have been the perfect example of sacrifice, hard work, and drive. My parents taught me to take advantage of every opportunity and to be disciplined, focused, and work hard to accomplish my goals. But more importantly, they taught me to always remember where we came from. My parents left El Salvador in search for survival. Their decision was difficult and terrifying, but I hope that over the years they have been able to see their vision come true. I attended law school with the hope of becoming a zealous advocate for immigrants who, like my parents, left their countries of origin and have made this one their home. Today, I am a graduate of NYU Law. This was all possible because of my parents. My accomplishments are as much mine as they are theirs. Gracias. Besos."
Rhea Gonzaga (she, her, hers)
B.A in Political Science with a minor in Psychology
Washington State University
"My drive to pursue higher education came from my family. I am a single child and first generation student. My parents left the Philippines and everything they knew to be able to provide me a better opportunity at life. They have sacrificed so much that I knew I wanted to further my education in order to make them proud & educate myself in order to move up in this world. I want to be able to provide for them as well as, give back to the world we live in today. My future plans are to pursue a career in Student Affairs and guide students through higher education."
Amapola de Guadalupe Ramirez M.S., MSW
Master of Social Work
University of Southern California
"I am 39 years old (she, her). I am a wife and mother of two amazing boys. I have a Masters of Science in Human Services and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Southern California which I currently received on May 10, 2019.
I grew up in Whittier California with my parents and two younger brothers. My parents immigrated to the US together in 1979. My mother was pregnant with me when she crossed the border and shared they were afraid of the new change in their life. I grew up struggling in school due to my parents not being able to help me because of language barriers. I was held back in 1st grade due to my shyness and insecurities. I must say that even though my parents were not able to help me with school they did teach me the importance of hard work and consistency. No matter how tired they both were they never once gave up for my brothers and I. My parents worked Monday through Sunday and always made sure we had food on the table. I had promised as a young child that I would one day prove to myself that I am smart and capable of accomplishing my dream of graduating from USC. I owe this to my parents who forever I will admire and thank. Porque con fe y esfuerzo todo se puede."
Sarah Nieves, She/Her/Hers,
Double Major Bachelors of Arts Degree in Legal Studies and Politics,
University of California Santa Cruz
"The struggles I’ve seen my mother face have always pushed me to do better and be better. Her hardships were the reason I choose to pursue higher education. Not only because it showed me how difficult it is to be a women of color within this society but also because she taught me that resilience and independence are undeniably powerful. She has always proven to be the most hard working woman I know. Her long hours, sleepless nights and determination to provide for my siblings and I, has engraved in me, a drive to succeed. A passion to be able to provide for her one day, the way she has always provided for me, even when she wasn't able to. My degree is a representation of her. Her selflessness, her incredible heart and unconditional support. As a result, after graduation, I have secured a full time job working at the best insurance firm for lawyers. I plan to work hard, learn as much as I can and save for when I attend law school. In the future I plan on being an Immigration lawyer, so that I can help those who continue to face exploitation and persecution. Those being dehumanized at the border are our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so on. They are in need of voices and representation and I plan to be just that. I am a gleaming vision of my mom and I know that with the knowledge I’ve gained, I am more that capable."
Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology
Cal State University, Monterey Bay
Momma, Chingona and a Vaga with a Degree!
"Motherhood is a special thing, when we become mothers we strive to be the best examples possible. My road to a degree was not the conventional road, instead I did things out of sequence. I was married and had a beautiful son and entered parenthood. It was then that my son became my drive to pursue my college degree. It wasn’t until my son was older that I decided to begin my degree in Psychology. Junior college took a lot longer than I would have liked, but being available for my son during the week meant more to me than a full class schedule. I completed undergrad in two years, on December 2018. Although I am proud of successfully juggling work full time, a full class schedule, and parenthood; all while being present for all of my son's football games, my proudest moment was when my son hugged me and said he was proud of me for accomplishing my life goal. He makes me proud a million times over but to be a positive influence in your child’s eyes is an immeasurable gift.
I will be returning to CSUMB Fall 2019 for my MSW. My goal is to work in communities with a need for Bilingual/Bicultural Therapists, to be a voice for those that encounter barriers in accessing mental health services and to be an advocate for change. I feel that social work/therapy is a calling, one that I am looking forward being a part of."
Tashya Lee Jones (She/her/hers)
Bachelors of Arts in Media Studies
University of California, Berkeley
“It takes a village to raise a child”. As a first generation college student, I learned the responsibility of making a living for myself while supporting my family 300 miles away. My family always wished for me to obtain a college degree. This is why I cannot contribute my success to one sole moment or person. I remember my grandfather taking me to visit college campuses at an early age and after his passing, my grandmother was determined to continue supporting my journey. She encouraged me to always go above and beyond. Her favorite saying was “Tashya, if you don’t do it then who will!?” Being raised in a single parent household, my mother was and still is a great inspiration and a huge influence in my life. She was my main support system when I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease at the age of 10. While working three jobs, she made sure to be present for every single one of my achievements and manage to set elements in my early age to predict my future. My mother always had the Oprah Winfrey Show on. It was inspiring to see a black woman breaking boundaries on the big screen. When I decided to come to Berkeley, I came in pursuit of a degree in a Media Studies with a concentration in Representation Politics. 2018 was a big hurdle for me. During a check up, there was a lump within in my thyroid that was deemed cancerous. After 2 months of close monitoring, the doctor realized that it was just my thyroid overreacting. The following semester, my grandmother suddenly passed away from influenza. With all this going on, I had no intentions of coming back to Berkeley. However, my village (the black community and my mother) supported me through this stressful time. My ultimate goal is to have a late night talk show that displays successful people of color with ordinary jobs and creating comedy sketches to parody contemporary culture. Within this show, I plan to present all aspects of blackness in a way that highlights our intersectionality and allows audiences to gain a deeper understanding of Black life in America. So when you see me on TV, you gotta be like “OMG, a Vaga with a Degree”.
University of Southern California
B.A. Broadcast and Digital Journalism
Minor, American Studies and Ethnicity
Growing up in a poor, immigrant, working-class family had me trying to fulfill everyone’s dreams except my own. My parents didn’t get the chance to dream. They worked tirelessly to give me everything they didn’t have. But when it came to down to pursuing a degree in journalism, I knew this degree was for me. It was for me because I understood that anything I pursued with passion would ultimately make me successful, in turn, making them very proud. I know this is what they wanted the most. They were used to defining success through degrees in medicine or law. I took my chance in redefining what success looks like as a communicator. I dare to say I have succeeded.
Now equipped with a degree in journalism, I plan to pursue a career as a multi-media journalist covering local news. If this means moving to small-town hundreds of miles from home then so be it. Studying journalism has made me aware of the importance of well-told, nuanced stories, especially of marginalized communities. I’ve learned that it takes understanding and sensibility to have people open up to you. Trust is half the job. Coming from a difficult background myself, I understand how to do this. I believe no one can tell great, compelling stories the way a Latina can. I look forward to uplifting people I meet on this risky, yet exciting career path and see where it takes me.
Bachelor of Science in Health Science
Cal state university Channel Islands
"Three years ago I decided it was time to get my life together for the sake of myself and beautiful son. As a child I always knew I wanted to work in the medical field but my first year in college I got terrified and got lost with all the struggles life threw at me. I had lost my father a few years ago during that time and I was still trying to balance my life without him and many other things. Being a mother, working full time, a student and volunteering my free time in the ER was challenging but I couldn’t have done this without the help of my family, support from my friends and my son’s school. My son is the root to my success and with my bachelors degree in health science I will be able to continue my education to pursue my masters as a physician assistant or perhaps a masters for direct entry level for nursing whichever graduate program takes me first. Working as nurse and being able to help patients first hand has been rewarding and I cannot wait to be able to do more. This degree goes to my father who I miss so dearly."
Susana Garcia Chavez, MS (she/her/hers)
PsyD in Clinical Forensic Psychology
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
"What inspired me to pursue my degree was my abuelitos. I promised my abuelito that I would finish college before he died and now I will be walking across the stage for the last time (hopefully). My abuelita never had a chance to go to school and they both always pushed for their children and grandchildren to understand the importance of being educated. I will be the first doctor in my family which is an amazing feeling seeing the next generation look at me and see that if I did it, they can too!
I plan on continuing to work with children and adults to free the stigma of mental health in Latinx communities. I have come across so many people who still think it is wrong or don’t want people to know that they are in therapy because of family thinking they are “crazy”. Working with low income families with trauma, abuse and victims of crime is a passion of mine and I hope I continue to help these families for years to come."
Bachelor of Science in Political Economy
University of California, Berkeley
"The rise of Strive Masiyiwa, a Zimbabwean entrepreneur who has recently become a billionaire has been a huge motivating factor to me as I pursued my undergraduate degree. In as much as I commend Masiyiwa’s financial success, I am more deeply inspired by his philanthropic touch. As someone who grew up in Chishawasha, a tiny, poverty-stricken village in Zimbabwe, I would not have had a chance to complete high school and let alone afford college without the Higher Life Foundation scholarship funded by Masiyiwa.
Through its partnerships, the Higherlife Foundation recommended me to receive yet another scholarship called Pestalozzi for the last two years of my high school. Through this scholarship, I travelled to England at studied for the International Baccalaureate Diploma at Sussex Coast College.
Afterwards, I decided to come to UC Berkeley and my education was once again only possible through another scholarship. This time it was the MasterCard Foundation scholarship. Four years later, I am graduating with a degree in Political Economy through which explored the intricate connections between economics and politics. I also concentrated on the dynamics of globalization and studied abroad in China as part of my learning experience.
I plan to start pursuing a Masters in Global Management next Fall. Career-wise, I hope to be a management consultant, working with firms with a global presence. Later on, I plan to transition into a visionary social entrepreneur, spear-heading socio-economic development back in my home country. I aspire to empower others just as I was empowered by Strive Masiyiwa."
Vanessa "Cueponi Cihuatl" Espinoza (She/Her/Hers/Ella)
Masters in Educaiton
Iowa State University
"This degree is not just for me. It is for the ones that couldn't make it because they had to survive. It is for the womxn in my family who were expected to be wives and mothers and nothing else. It's for my ancestors, my family, immigrants, ESL students, folks with disabilities, first-gens, and the people coming behind me. As a Mexican womxn, the expectations for me were always different. I was not expected to get this far. Me puse las pilas and I went to college. It was a lonely path, but worth it because I became the first in my family to go to college. I pursued higher education because I wanted a better life. I didn't want our sacrifices to be in vain. My parents have to survive. They have to wake up early to work at a meat packing plant or in construction work. They can't miss work or do self-care. I have the privilege of self-actualization. I get to find my purpose and work doing something that I love. With my degree, I plan to continue uplifting my community by using the tools I've acquired. I plan to open up a non-profit and to work at a college where I can support marginalized students and also advocate for them. This is for mi gente because la lucha sigue!"
Amy Nungaray (She/Her)
Journalism with an emphasis in Public Relations
California State University of Northridge
"I have been fortunate to have a family that pushed me to go for a higher education, even on the days I felt like giving up. And trust me, there were quite a few of those days. I was my own worst enemy for a few years and only saw school as a chore than a privilege. I was wrong. And once I found the degree I wanted to pursue my entire mindset changed. I started to genuinely enjoy my classes and learn who I wanted to become. I changed from wanting to get a college degree to keep my family happy - to wanting it for myself. I needed to become a better version of myself and college gave me that opportunity. Now that this journey is over, the biggest lesson I have learned is I don’t need to label myself a journalist, public relations specialist or anything for that matter. My future is not determined by my degree, but where I decide to apply myself. My degree has given me the confidence to know I can make it, no matter how hard it may get on some days. Ideally, I would like to use my education to help communicate clearly and in a concise manner. There have been too many instances where unclear communication could have been easily achieved if someone had cared. I want to be that person who genuinely cares."
Vanessa Castellanos (She, her, hers)
Master of Social Work - University of Southern California
Up next: Full ride at Fordham University - PhD in Social Work
"I’m from, South Central Los Angeles, but you may know it as South LA. A community full of beautiful black and brown folks, where hot Cheetos with chamoy meet bamboo earrings from the Slauson Swapmeet.
My mother is a third generation Chicana, whose oldies playlists helped her cope with generational trauma and heartbreak, but also made her one of the strongest examples of womanhood in my life. My father is an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico. I admire his resilience, hard work, and dedication to his family. I share this, to emphasize how much of my community, family, and environment is embedded into my identity.
I am the first in my family to receive a master’s degree. I have been reflecting on what has led me here. My roots in my community pointed me to Social Work. This field has not only encouraged self-awareness, it has given me a sense of purpose and the lens to better assess communities of color and their environments.
I realize that, this is not just a career, it is my passion. I will create visibility at the table and take up the necessary space to continue to advocate for communities of color using the platform of academia.
As I prepare for the continuation of this journey in New York, I will write my own chapter as Profesora Castellanos, by staying connected to my community while using the tools within academia to uplift and affirm my community and others like it."
Stephanie Calderon Vasquez (she/her/they/them)
BA in English, Triple Minor in Honors Latin American and Latinx Studies; U.S. Latinx Literature; and Creative Writing
CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
"Being raised by a single mother, I never understood the difference between working hard and stressing yourself to the max. Seeing my mom work all night and try and cook, clean, and help me with school work during the day forced me to think about what the future meant for me. As I was attempting to figure out what education meant to me, my oldest sister passed away before entering college. After her death and hearing her missed aspiration, I wanted to take her on my education journey. So I dedicated myself to getting honors in high school and she was my focus as I was applying to schools. My sister was my motivation to get to school, but once I was here, being able to make my mom proud became my priority because she has been my mother, my father, my best friend, and my supporter. As I started my journey in John Jay I wanted to start a career that would get me the easiest and fastest money so I started as a Forensic Scientist but after almost failing my classes, I needed to be honest with myself and follow my love of writing and connecting to my Latinx roots. Although I was terrified of disappointing my mom, I knew that this would be the moment that will define my relationship with my mom. As I told her about the career change she didn’t understand what it meant for a girl whose first language is English to study English, but she supported me to the end (which is a blessing and a privilege that I know not many have). I wouldn’t have been able to finish these four years without her love and support. As I finish my majors and minors, I want to create an organization that connects the Latinx community to literature that they can relate to and allows for them to become excited to learn and read."
Pronouns: She, Her
Degree and Institution: B.A. in Psychology and Minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Irvine
"It’s been quite the struggle these past years with jobs, school, internship, extracurricular activities, and working on my own business. My past two startups failed during community college however they were both learning experiences and it hasn’t stopped me from pursuing a new business which I am now in the process of developing. The entrepreneurial resources at UCI have helped me with developing my business and my dream. After 5 long years I am so happy and blessed to be receiving my bachelors degree at UCI. I’ve always been very career-driven and education-driven because I want to be able to give my family a better life. My parents had me at a young age and were not able to finish college. We didn’t have a lot but they provided the best they could and I will always be grateful for that. Now that I am graduating I am closer than ever to my goal of supporting my family. I would not be where I am today without them. I hope that with my education, career and business goals, and determination that I can not only help my family and the people who helped me throughout my journey, but also make an impact on and better peoples’ lives. Throughout this journey I’ve learned so much about myself and about the world and I would never give that up. The struggle and the hustle has made me the person that I am today."
Sarahi Juarez (She/Her)
Bachelor of Arts in International Relations
Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Latino & Latin American Studies
University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California
"In elementary school, I would sit down at the table and whine about solving multiplication tables. “I can’t do this! What’s the answer?” I would suddenly hear my dad respond, “Es muy fácil mija, la misma pregunta lo dice.” Leave it to my dad to provide the comic relief to my stresses. His humorous comments and pats on my head reassured me that I could get it done.
My dad is who inspired me most to pursue an education. Hailing from the small town of Susticacán, Zacatecas, México, my dad was only fifteen years old when he first crossed to the U.S. in search of his Sueño Americano. Throughout my schooling, nothing inspired me more than the proud smile across his face and the tight hugs that radiated his immense joy. As I walked across that stage as the first Juarez to do so, my dad watched his little girl earn her diploma. And while the diploma is an achievement I am very proud of, nothing makes me prouder than being his daughter.
Now that I’ve graduated, I plan to soon pursue graduate studies and eventually work in Latin America. I hope to utilize my passion for human rights and the Latin American community at both a grassroot and international level by working in embassies or international institutions. Wherever I choose to go, I will do it proudly, as the daughter of the most hard-working man I know who inspires me to keep echándole ganas!"
Jessica Mena-Flores, M.Ed
Masters in Higher Education, Student Affairs, Iowa State University
"My name is Jessica Mena-Flores y vengo de una familia de immigrantes. My journey to Education started thanks to a couple of non-profit organizations, Huckleberry Youth Programs and 10,000 Degrees. It is important for me to acknowledge both of these college access organizations, as they provided me with the tools and guidance towards obtaining a degree. (Shoutout to one of my mentors, Sheila Dominic who supported me through out the way).
As a first generation Latina, my inspiration has always been my family. As I began my undergraduate journey at Sonoma State University, I was able to connect with other student leaders of color who became mentors, which was when I was introduced to the field of Student Affairs. My passion for wanting to give back later led me to completing my Masters Degree, in Student Affairs from Iowa State University. I knew I wanted to pay it forward, as many had paved the way to college for me. Now, as a student affairs practioner, I hope to continue paying the way for other students of color. My passion for higher education was all possible thanks to my Huckleberry and 10,000 degrees family.”
Kayla Dantley (she/her)
University of Maryland
"My parents were first generation students. Seeing them be successful in their fields inspired me to pursue an education and continue to pave the way for the future of my family. I wanted to inspire other young women, especially minorities to pursue their dreams too. I knew that I had to set an example for future students. I plan to use my creativity skills to pursue a career in the social media and digital communications field for an entertainment industry."
Masters in Education with a Concentration in Counseling
San Diego State University
"I’m the daughter of immigrant farm workers, domestic violence survivor and teenage mother. I came to this country at the age of 13. I was 15 years old when I found that I was pregnant, that same year I dropped out of High school. My educational journey started the night that my baby’s father forced me and my baby to sleep outside the house. That night, a memory came to my mind. It was when I was 14 years old. My mother took me to work with her in the tomato fields. When I told her that I was tired, she said. “This is our life, the only people that have a good life are the ones that have a good education.” That night I promised my 9-month baby that I was going back to school.
Going back to school was not easy. My baby’s father tried to discourage me. He used to ask me: Do you really think you can graduate from high school? You don’t even know how to speak English! During my first semester of undergrad school my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I suffered many months of depression, neglected my grades and was academically disqualified. Giving up was not an option, I completed all the necessary steps and reapplied back. The girl who was academically disqualified from CSUSM was now selected to be the commencement speaker. I just accomplished another goal, my M.A degree from SDSU. With my M.A degree I want to start a non-profit organization that encourages underrepresented students to continue with their education."
I've attached links that have more details about my story.
Lili Velazquez (she/her/hers)
Masters of Science in College Student Personnel
Western Illinois University
"I am the daughter of an immigrant father and American born mother of Mexican descent. While my mother was born here, she also did not get a college degree. My parents always instilled in my siblings and I the importance of getting an education; especially my dad who only completed elementary school. I've always been passionate about education but it was my Latino Studies major in undergrad that made me grow a passion for working with other first-generation students like myself. In undergrad, I became very involved as a student leader and is where my passion for student affairs stemmed from. Now that I have my masters in College Student Personnel I plan to work in higher ed and continue to work with first-generation students and other underrepresented student groups. I know all too well what imposter syndrome feels like even now as a rising student affairs professional but I and many other Latinas are proof that we can do it and that we are breaking barriers. I want to be that mentor to my students to help them realize their fullest potential and to continue to navigate spaces in higher ed for my students so that they don't have to struggle as much. We have lots of work to do and I'm ready to get to work. Que sigue la lucha!"
Carolina Silva (she/her/hers)
PhD in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education,
Washington State University
"My role as a mentor began at home. I made a deal with my father that I would be the first in my family to attend and graduate college; simultaneously encouraging my younger siblings do the same. Being fully aware that my parents gave up everything in their home countries so I could access higher education, I was determined to keep my promise. I navigated the college application process without guidance and was committed to mentor other students in my position. My parents also taught me that I had important knowledge and the responsibility to share it with my community. The seed instilled by my family sprouted when I entered college. I took every opportunity I could to share my knowledge in community settings. I began tutoring in local schools, and volunteering with immigrant youth centers. I created a college mentoring program for ESL students and helped form a first-generation student group on my campus. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Education so I could gain the expertise to help alleviate the unfair conditions underrepresented students face in schools.
For me, earning a PhD was never an end goal. The PhD is a tool I pursued to be able to better advocate for myself and my community. I will use my research training and experience to contribute to a policymaking agenda driven by social justice research and the priorities of underserved communities. Lastly, to my students, thank you for the laughs and encouragement.
Yo soy porque ustedes son."
Melia Thompson Dudiak, J.D. Magna Cum Laude,
California Western School of Law
"My mother never had the opportunity to attend college; nevertheless, she prioritized my education. She moved our family to the smallest apartment in the neighborhood with the best schools. When living there became unsustainable, she devised ways for me to remain in the privileged educational systems. Her insistence on academic success indicated education was of paramount importance.
At seven years old, I invited myself into a neighbor’s apartment. She was a graduate student at The University of Southern California. She became a big sister to me and on many occasions, I accompanied her to lectures, labs, and even dormitory parties. I had been exposed to college life early, and I was eager to avail myself to the experience.
When my mother and I became homeless, college became a necessity– it offered a way out of homelessness and the prospect of a better future. Within my studies, I crafted unique programs allowing me to study abroad in Spain, Brazil, and Thailand. I honed this ability in law school and traveled to twenty countries in six trimesters.
I plan to use my Juris Doctor degree to pursue an autonomous lifestyle. My first goal is to write a book incorporating lessons from my academic, personal, and travel experiences. Hopefully, the book will be the first of many inspiring ventures to empower people to discover freedom and happiness through common sense, scholarly excellence, and global perspectives. My studies have proved that with consistency, high standards, and a vast imagination, big dreams can become reality!"
Daniela Marie Monahan Ospina (She/ Her)
Master of Science in Project Management
University of Southern California
"I just graduated at the age of 23 from USC with my Masters degree. Over the past 11 months I both worked and went to school full time and during this period I repeatedly heard multiple people say “you make it look so easy, how do you do it?” But believe me there were many nights of tears and wanting to quit! But, in those low moments I would remind myself that going to school was a privilege and I was doing the one thing that I always dreamed of doing.
Though I went to school for myself, I would be lying if I said I didn’t do this for my parents as well. My mom is my rock and without her I quite literally would not be the woman I am today. My mom cleans houses for a living and she has since I was 8 years old. There are so many people over the years that have criticized her career choice but guess what? Her hard work and resilience got me to San Francisco for undergrad and further pushed me to pursue my Masters at USC. There were many nights over the last 11 months that I would go to work with my mom and do homework while she was breaking her back making a living and those moments motivated me to keep going because I knew that this degree would open up doors for me to one day make sure she would never have to clean another house again. Neither of my parents got a college degree but they were/ are two of the hardest workers that I know. My dad was plumber and I would see him come home covered in dirt and so exhausted from working 15+ hour days but he did it for me. (He unfortunately committed suicide a little over 3 years ago and is no longer with us.) They both worked so hard to make sure I never lacked anything and they gave me the platform to have the brightest future possible. So when people ask me how I did it; I did it but reminding myself that all of these moments were a product of the blood, sweat, and tears that my parents shed in order to give me the world. I will always remember my roots and where I come from no matter how much I accomplish in life. I have so much to be grateful for and I am so humbled by all of my experiences.
My degree allowed me the opportunity to get promoted at work and I am currently the Project Timeline Manager for Jouer Cosmetics. My degree has already opened so many doors for me and I cant wait to see where the future takes me!"
Ashley Sanders (She/Her)
Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, MFT PCC
California Baptist University
"After receiving my bachelor's degree in Middle Level Education, I soon realized I wanted to help children and families on a deeper level that unfortunately some school districts do not allow. I began researching different avenues related to counseling services and soon settled on obtaining the education and training to be able to become a community based therapist to provide mental health resources to marginalized communities. I would say that what inspired me the most to pursue and obtain this degree was the blatant discrepancies people of color face regarding resources, especially mental health. So many black and brown children are stigmatized as "troubled" or "sassy" instead of having exposure to professional aid to help identify the root of certain behaviors. My goal is to be that person that champions for kids, mostly the marginalized kids that are quickly labeled and shoved down the education pipeline."
Aidee Cisneros (She/her/hers)
BA Human Development & Spanish
Washington State University
"Who would have thought that the little girl came from El Achote Michoacán, would be graduating with her BA. I remember moving to the United States with my aunt because I wanted to have an education. Growing up without my parents has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I needed to learn a new language and adapt to a new world. Not knowing English at all was so hard for me because I felt so helpless and stupid, I remember the first months of my transitions were the hardest months for me. I had to work twice as hard, I attended after school programs, Saturday school & summer school. When my second-grade teacher Ms. Diaz told me how proud she was of me, I was so proud of myself. I knew I wanted to attend college since I was in the second grade after a trip I took to UCLA. The reason I am here today is because of my resiliency, my hunger for success. This degree wouldn’t be possible with all the support of my friends, family, teachers & other inspirational people I’ve came across. These 4 years have gone by so fast. I’ve had to work long hours to make end meets, but here I am proud of myself for finishing something I thought I would never finish. Being the first in my family to graduate is a huge accomplishment for myself & for my family as well."
Amanda Te (She/her/hers)
Applied Mathematics, Emphasis in Data Science, Minor in Computer Science
University of California, Berkeley
"Like most Cambodians, I grew up in a donut shop.
My family escaped Cambodia during the genocide, and came to America with literally nothing. No belongings, no money. My parents started a donut shop together a few years before I was born, but as soon as I could talk, I remember feeling a sense of responsibility. I had to grow up fast: early mornings, late nights, rude customers, no air conditioning, no wifi, 110 degree summers.
Honestly, I didn't think anything of it, it was life. A life my parents were teaching me to rise above and change with education.
In high school, I became president of many clubs, #1 singles for varsity tennis, and graduated valedictorian. My background only became an obstacle in college, when I learned how different I was from everyone else. There were things I constantly worried about or struggled with that most people might never come across.
Freshmen year, I thought I’d drop out because the heavy reality of being a low-income, first generation, Cambodian woman was no longer a title. I learned the baggage, the trauma, the ostracism, and the daily struggles. But now I'm on my way to becoming one of the first female Cambodian software engineers.
I don't see people like me at Berkeley because there isn't a lot of us. I was given an amazing opportunity to create a future that I statistically shouldn't have, and it only takes one person to pave the way.
I dare to represent the underrepresented, and that's what's made all the difference."