You’re going to pursue and earn a PhD someday. You’re also going to write a book and become a professor at a top university. If someone would have told me those words in high school, I would have never believed them. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have reached such accomplishments, but I have. And I’m very proud of doing so as a Latina who came from very humble beginnings. I come from a family who did not have the cultural or social resources that could teach me about belonging in higher education. I wasn’t exposed to the idea that I could pursue a graduate degree to become a doctora. As a young girl, I didn’t know how to dream big yet, but now I am an example of someone who lives her dream job every day. I will be the first to admit that my path has not been easy because of unexpected struggles inside and outside the classroom. However, it was my family, help from school counselors, and learning to believe in myself that helped me get to where I am today.
Some kids love school, while others sit next to their kindergarten teacher crying because they want to go home. I was the latter. English was not my first language and I’ve always been an introvert who liked exploring new environments slowly. I was able to adjust with bilingual programs, but I still wasn’t the greatest student. With much frustration mom often uttered “que puros llantos” as I cried and struggled with homework. Through the years, math was my hardest subject. However, I was lucky to have parents who really supported me. Dad worked in construction and mom worked at my elementary school monitoring the playground. They didn’t have much education, but they supported me in their own ways. Such cultural capital is one of the main reasons why I have reached my goals. Although my parents did not have a strong academic background, I remember them sitting with me practicing math problems. At the time it was very frustrating because they taught me in their own way, different from what I’d seen in the classroom. Still, there was great value in them sitting with me. The message was that they cared about me doing well in school. They often let me know that school and my education was important.
Mom was amazing, often trying to do as much as possible with the very little that we had. She once bought a random math book from a local swamp meet. I remember practicing math problems and checking the back of the book to see if I’d gotten them correct. On another occasion mom decided to buy an entire encyclopedia from our local library so that my siblings and I could do homework easier. We brought the mountain of books in a shopping cart all the way home. Dad was vocal about me doing well in school so that I could have the opportunities they never had. Such encouragement was immensely important to my desire to do well in school. For example, my dad and his brother built a small escuelita in the backyard next to some nopales and dirt with left over wood he had from some repairs he was making outside the house. There was a little table and some colorful chairs inside. We often played with neighborhood kids and my brothers, taking turns being the teacher and giving each other homework assignments. This was another way that my father and our culture demonstrated the importance of school. Outside supporters are also important. My counselor in high school noticed that I cared about school and that I was willing to do the work required to earn top grades. For those reasons, I was encouraged to take honor courses, but was intimated because I thought that only very smart kids took those classes. I didn’t see myself as smart yet and was afraid of failing the more challenging courses. However, the transition into honor courses went much better than I had hoped. I was very happy to have taken on the challenge because I was around other motivated students who did well and I was exposed to teachers who nurtured our potential. Well, except for one teacher!
One of my strengths in school was writing. I wrote a paper on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I liked reading and didn’t mind putting in the time and effort required to write an exceptional, well written paper. Our English teacher called a few of us to have a private conversation out of nowhere. I was cheerful, thinking that she was going to praise and complement the hard work, but her questions weren’t adding up. She asked me if I’d used cliff notes, but had no idea what she meant. Her facial expressions and demeanor didn’t match what I was expecting, I knew something was wrong but wasn’t sure at the time. She kept pushing, asking me, “how did you write this paper”? “I sat at the kitchen table to write it”, I responded. I started making sense of the situation and realized that she was accusing me of plagiarism. She would have never assumed that plagiarism was an issue if it were a bad paper. It was as if she was saying that I was incapable of writing an exceptional paper on my own. I felt heartbroken, but realized that she under estimated me and her own teaching because she was the one teaching us how to write. I felt bad, but also felt proud of my work even though she didn’t appreciate the effort. The point is that sometimes people may bring us down even when we are trying to do well in school. Situations outside the class may definitely affect us inside the classroom.
I remember dreading the walk home during the latter part of the day. There was a sense of worry because my friend was almost snatched into a car right in front of me. We lived close enough to school to think that nothing could happen during such a short walk. We were very young and knew that we had to walk together because we didn’t live in the best neighborhood, but the experience was so unexpected. It’s the type of thing we only see in movies, but we lived it. Our parents had to work and were unable to walk or drive us home after school. Our area was considered a hotspot for crime at the time, but I never would have thought that something so crazy would happen. I felt helpless, not knowing what to do. It all happened so quickly. The driver stayed in the car while a woman rushed out to forcefully pull my friend into the car. We yelled and she was able to push away to break free. We ran home to tell our parents what had happened. We were both okay, but the moment was so frightening. From then on, our parents did their very best to make sure that we had rides home from neighbors and friends, but such experiences affected my thoughts and ability to focus in the classroom.
I’ve shared these experiences because I’m sure that we all have difficult moments and struggles that affect us. These distractions may hurt, frustrate us, or even defeat us momentarily, but the best thing to do is ask for help and find ways to overcome the obstacles that try to keep us from our goals. My goals were not grand quite yet, but I simply had a desire to do well in school when I was in high school. I only started to contemplate college once we were asked to develop our personal statements as a class assignment. One of my counselors pulled a few of us out of the classroom to let us know that important deadlines were coming soon. I was not college mined yet. My cultural and social environment spoke about college and the importance of our education, but the actual details that would get me there were not present. It took Mr. Gerry Ox, our school counselor, to push me to focus on college. He helped me with the details and step by step process that got me thinking about college. I asked tons of questions and began to expand my thinking beyond high school. The fact that I was involved with campus organizations and activities would enhance my college application. I was beginning to learn about University of California (UC) systems and California State University (CSU) systems while applying for college. I also realized the importance of having strong grades because they were what made my application competitive enough to get into UC Irvine.
My strong grades in high school were uplifting, but getting a D- on my first college paper was not. My Spanish professor said that my writing was “colloquial”. I had no idea what he meant but soon realized that it meant “street talk” or informal writing that was no longer acceptable. As a Spanish Language and Culture major, I had to develop a new standard of writing. I took the criticism and decided to listen and make some improvements. I adjusted by paying attention to how the authors wrote in the journal articles and books I was reading. How do they write? Such a simple question helped me use multiple authors as reference points to develop my own style. I enjoyed reading already, now I was keeping track of how they structured academic language. As another strategy, I developed simple outlines of the readings. This helped me organize my thoughts as I prepared for writing, as opposed to simply writing without any structure. Some readings were difficult to connect with, even boring at times. However, once I added Chicano/Latino Studies as a major, reading and writing became much more interesting. I was exposed to Latino/a authors, diversity, and points of view that typical textbooks do not provide. Some topics angered me while others inspired me to want to learn more. For example, I learned about the history of Chávez Ravine and the Bracero programs that are ever significant, yet overlooked in our history textbooks. Who writes those textbooks? I’m sure that diversity has never been a priority as those books are written and distributed to the masses.
I was surprised to have never come across such important parts of our history in previous years of schooling. I felt a deep sense of anger at the inequality and systemic racism, but even more when I began to look into my family’s history. I learned that my grandfather was a Bracero. I hadn’t noticed, but there was a picture of him and his brother in a field in Mendota CA. He never talked about it, but why would he? That era of his life must have been filled with painful memories. Becoming aware of such inequality back then, and its continuous presence in modern times sparked my desire to think about the opportunities that were right in front of me. Something positive did come from becoming aware of such a sorrowful history. Such exposure into my history inspired me to pursue higher education as a graduate student. I wanted to increase our cultural capital, which was denied to so many hard working, and capable people. With the help of my advisors, I began to apply to masters and PhD programs. I was happy to have been accepted to multiple programs, but decided on a PhD in sociology at the University of Southern California.
I was a senior at UCI when I began applying to graduate programs. I felt very late in the game, but knew that I needed to make the attempt. Even after being accepted, I quietly contemplated whether I was smart enough to earn a graduate degree at such an elite school. I didn’t have a sociology background or a master’s degree like many of my classmates and I realized quickly, within my first year, that I had to elevate my writing to a whole new level once again. I mention these struggles and uncertainties because it goes to show that a straight and perfect path toward a PhD is not needed. I was scared, but moved forward anyway. In high school and throughout most of my academic studies as an undergraduate, pursuing a graduate degree was the furthest possibility in my mind. I was slowly changing, growing, and learning to believe in myself. My graduate program was rigorous, but I was committed to meeting and surpassing such high standards.
I was fascinated by the type of issues I was studying as a PhD student. I was ever more curious to learn about the intersection between race, socio-economic class, and gender differences. Graduate school challenged me to think like a researcher, study at a comprehensive level, and to problem solve. I was learning to be a scholar like the ones I read about so many times as I dove deep into Chicano/Latino literature as an undergraduate. For my dissertation, I had an opportunity to go back to the community I came from in Santa Ana to study Latina teachers. I loved hearing their stories and being in the schools I often drove by for so many years. I was linking theoretical perspectives I learned in the classroom to real experiences in the field. We addressed problems together in hopes of building a future generation of doctors, scientists and engineers. I was inspired by the hard work teachers did every day. I deeply enjoyed my dissertation process. My original goal in pursuing a graduate program was to become a bilingual elementary school teacher, but I was also learning that the world was my oyster.
My successes are certainly due to hard work and countless hours studying and writing, but family and mentors along the way were also a crucial element to my achievements. During the latter part of my graduate program, my father passed away. My father was unable to physically see the fruits of his labor, but I was determined to move forward even with so much sorrow. With my department’s support, I prepared to defend my dissertation and pursued a fellowship that would further develop my academic career. One of my dissertation committee members asked me what was next for me. I wasn’t sure, and simply said that I would be fine with being anywhere, where I could make a difference. She pushed a bit further and directly asked, “What would be your dream job?”. I hesitantly said that my dream position would be teaching Chicano/Latino studies at UCI. She smiled and said that such dream job would now be possible. I few weeks later I saw an opening, which I decided to pursue. And here I am, living my dream and building the next generation of scholars. I love what I do and see myself in many young, first generation students. My hope is that my students and all aspiring academics who are not sure about their future will learn to believe in themselves so that they can achieve their highest aspirations, because such big dreams are truly possible.