Becoming a Doctora: Finding Strength in Mi Familia, Mi Cultura, y mi Comunidad. - Mayra Gaona


My story starts way before I was born. My parents’ immigration journey to the U.S. forms part of who I am. It is part of my story. It has shaped me into the mujer I am today. My parents immigrated to the U.S. at a very young age from Michoacán, México. Being one of the eldest children in his family, my dad had to help his parents with his younger siblings. He tells me the stories of the many times la migra sent him back. When he successfully made it over, he started working in the fields. He tells me about having to pick strawberries in San Juan Capistrano, California; lettuce in Oxnard, California; onions in Bakersfield, California; grapes in Fresno, California; kiwis in Morgan Hill, California; tomatoes in Stockton, California; olives in Corning, California; raspberries in Cornelius, Oregon; apples in Seattle, Washington. He took pride in working hard. He tells me about being called El Campeon for being able to fill up the most boxes of produce in the shortest amount of time. That’s how it is in the fields; they pay you for boxes, not for the number of hours you are there. My dad struggled for many years doing this work, and still continues to today, as well as my mom. Never learning English, they currently work in factory jobs. Unfortunately, they are still facing many injustices and mistreatment. Over the years, I have seen this struggle. I have seen my parents struggle to pay rent and make ends meet. I grew up being low-income. I don’t know at what point it clicked, but I knew I wanted to help my parents, get a job, earn enough money to give back to them.


The decision to go to college was not something that I do not consciously remember making; it kind of just happened. My oldest sister had gone to college for some time but was not able to continue. Even so, this definitely set the example. My parents expected me to try attending college, though it did not work out for my older sister. I had average grades in high school, failed one math class; I was not the most stellar student. I was not the kid in high school that everyone said, “Their future is so bright.” I had some honors and AP courses, but I did OK. I had no mentors throughout high school. Many people have counselors or teachers that encourage them to apply to college or help them look for career opportunities. I had none of that, and to be truthful many of us Latino students didn’t, especially those that lived in La Selva. That’s what they used to call a community of apartment buildings where a considerable number of low-income students lived. I lived in La Selva for a considerable amount of time throughout my childhood. Reflecting now, the way many of us who lived there were treated was absolutely inappropriate. Educational institutions certainly do not treat all the students the same way. Those who look a different way, speak a foreign language, come from a diverse background are often left behind. This was my experience. Maybe I did not possess anything exceptional as a student; however, no one ever sat down with me and tried to find out if I did or not. Nobody ever took a particular interest in me.

Nevertheless, I applied to college. I was accepted and was able to push through. I entered undergrad as an undeclared major, but then I fell in love with psychology. I was “undeclared” for a while. It made me nervous, and I often compared my journey to that of others. However, it all ended up falling into place. Psychology has always come easy to me. In my Psych 101 course in the first year of college, I could understand the different theories that psychologists proposed very easily. Then, I learned about how psychological services are delivered and who often seeks these services. That, to me, was defining. I learned that my people hardly ever seek psychological services, and when they do seek these services, they are not often culturally sensitive. From that point on, it became my mission to spread awareness about mental health and advocate for mental health services for Latinx individuals. Beyond just figuring out my passion, I was able to find a great group of friends to navigate the college experience with. Those four years of undergraduate seemed hard back then, but nothing could ever prepare me for the experience that is graduate school.



I never thought about going to college, much less graduate school. Graduate school was such new territory. My psychology professors always mentioned receiving their doctorate in Psychology, but for whatever reason, it never occurred to me that that was an option for me. Honestly, I’ve always been taught to be grateful, and I’ve always had very little; thus, I thought I would complete my four years of undergrad, which would be good enough for me. During the summer between my third and fourth years, however, there was a lot of discussion between my peers and faculty on what we would do after graduating. Come December, I had applied to several programs for graduate school: particularly PhD programs. Luckily, I had faculty during undergrad that supported me with the application process. However, reflecting now, I was not given the whole reality of what graduate school or a PhD program would be like. These faculty members were White, and they could have never prepared me for the obstacles I would face as a Latina woman in a PhD program. Nevertheless, interview season came around, and it was apparent that I had not received many interview offers. I had heard that PhD programs in Psychology were competitive no matter the branch of psychology (e.g., Clinical, Counseling, School) and that it was challenging to get into straight out of undergraduate; so, I was not super surprised. But all it took was one program. I received one interview offer for a School Psychology PhD program at a very prestigious university in my state. This interview meant the world to me as a first-gen Latina student. This interview was definitely an experience. Since I attended a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) for my undergraduate, coming to this interview was a little bit of a shock. I was the only Latina and only one of a few other BIPOC students interviewing.

I remember leaving that day, and processing the interview with my dad, as he drove me back home. He helped me realize that I should be so proud of myself and that it was an accomplishment to be there no matter the outcome. A few weeks after interviewing, I received news that I was on the waitlist for the program. The news broke my heart. Though I had not been denied immediately, I really believed the chances of getting in were low. I began to second-guess myself and telling myself why I even bothered applying to graduate school that cycle. I remember telling myself that I had been too confident and not smart enough to get into graduate school, much less a PhD program. April 15th (Decision Day) came around, and I never got any notice. At that point, I knew I was not going to get into the program. However, to my surprise, on April 24th, 2017, I got the news that I WAS IN! I remember getting that call during a school day, responding to that call in a staircase at my undergrad, and completely crying my eyes out. I had made it. All it took was one program to say yes to me. I was going to be a PhD student!



I started my PhD journey in August 2017, a few months after graduating with a Bachelor’s in Psychology. Me encomende a Dios. Nobody in my family or in my close community had done anything like this before. Fast forward to today, I’m here, a 4th year PhD student. I’ve finished my PhD coursework, I’m a few months away from starting my doctoral internship, and currently writing my dissertation. I’m beyond grateful. The journey has not been easy. I’ve had to balance the expectations of my PhD program, staying committed to my family, and taking care of myself, and doing things I enjoy. I’ve experienced imposter syndrome and still experience it from time to time. I have had to deal with isolation, burnout, and exhaustion. I have had to navigate attending a primarily White institution (PWI) and the lack of peers and faculty that look like me. I have had to pave the way for myself. That’s never easy. But I have grown as a person, and my passion has grown too. I’ve found strength in my family, my community and continuously revisiting why I embarked on this journey in the first place.

I’m getting this PhD for my family, my community, and myself. I will not be the last Doctora. I am passionate about giving back to younger generations of scholars, giving them the information, resources, and tools to make it into higher education. There are many things in my higher education journey that I made mistakes on, but I know better now. And now that I know better, I will not let those that come after me make the same mistakes. I want to use my experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained across my PhD journey to help others make an informed decision on whether or not pursuing a PhD is the right thing for them. That is my hope and goal with an Instagram page I recently started called @becomingadoctora. I also want to show students like me from a low-income, Latino immigrant household that if I did it (got into a PhD program), they can too! No one gets to tell you who you can or can’t be despite your background. In the next year or two, find me defending my dissertation and calling myself Doctora Gaona!


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