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Worlds Collide: Earning My Ph.D. “With” My Dad - Dr. Ana Guerrero

I was born in Mexico City, in the infamous Tepito, and immigrated to California with my family at a young age. I grew up in a ranch in Goleta, Ca, called Venadito Canyon Ranch until I was 17 years old; my dad was the gardener and my mother the housekeeper. I had a free and carefree childhood; I grew up climbing trees, scraping my knees like a champion, and co-existing with wildlife. My friends lived in nearby ranches whose parents also worked for the owners. I attended a very small school from Kindergarten to 8th grade in the middle of nowhere, the rural life was great, until it wasn’t. I did not receive college information until my senior year in high school when we moved. I applied to 8 colleges using the college applications fee waivers and decided to attend the local community college. I made that decision because I had not developed a college identity since I was introduced to college so recently, plus, everyone I knew was there.However, my academic journey began way before this point.

My parents have a junior high school level education in Mexico, though they are the reason why I took such great interest in school. Growing up, they both put our education at the center. For example, in elementary school, my dad would sit my siblings and I down to teach us how to read and write in Spanish after school, all out of his own initiative. Over school breaks, my mom would make us practice the multiplication table and take us to the public library to find a stack of books to read. So, I was doing extra school work from very early on. As I grew, it was their sacrifices and life situation that further made me take school seriously.

In high school, I was genuinely interested in understanding why things were the way they were at a societal level. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps conflicted me as a teenager, I also knew I wanted to do my part to make things a little better for my community, but I didn’t know exactly how at that time. I was interested in activism and social justice concerns, so I decided I wanted to major in sociology in college. Later in college, stemming from my personal experiences, I became interested in the Sociology of Education. I became eager to understand why such low rates of Latinx students were attending college, why my peers did not join me in my college journey, and why it felt like I was swimming against the current trying to reach my academic goals. There was a lot of disconnect between my efforts and my progress towards my goals. These things deeply bothered me, and now I know that was my drive.

There was never something extraordinary about me, I was timid and ever since I could remember, schooling didn’t come easy to me. So, I took extra steps to do well in school; I recorded college lectures, then listened to them during downtime, and took additional notes. I looked up words in the dictionary that I did not know when reading textbooks. I went to every study session, never missed class, and would sit in the front to focus better. I thought nothing really made me stand out, but somehow, those things made me stand out to my instructors.

There is a particular experience in college that changed my perspective about my abilities in school, a key turning point for me. I took one dual-enrollment course in high school, statistics, and I received a D, so I had to retake it again in my first year at Santa Barbara City College to replace that grade, and I received a D on my first midterm. If I received a D as the final grade in this course again, I would not be able to retake the course for a different grade, it would stay in my transcripts permanently and it would significantly affect my chances of transferring to a four-year college. I was convinced I was not capable of passing this class since I had worked very hard only to receive a D. I had given up on myself, so decided to go speak to a transfer counselor about this, but she instead spent time creating an action plan for me in order to pass this class. Hesitantly, I followed it; I did extra credit assignments, went to the professor’s office hours for the first time, and visited the math center for tutoring, but I still did not understand. Until one day, a student tutor explained things in a way that made sense to me. I finally understood statistics! I saw this tutor twice a week for the rest of the semester. When the professor handed back our second midterm, he placed my paper facing down, looked at me, smiled, and said “good job.” I received a B, the second-highest score in the class, and my classmates congratulated me. I passed that class with a B, it is still my proudest grade to this day. From this experience, I learned I can do hard things, that if I don’t understand something, to figure out a different way to learn it, to not give up when things get difficult, that if I reach out, people will help, and that I don’t have to do it all on my own.

I’ve always had a strong inner drive. A city college counselor once said, “ you have an umph,” that “umph” has taken me further than I ever imagined. In addition, I had life opportunities that no one in my family history had, and I was determined to see how far I could go. I received my BA in Sociology from UC Berkeley and my MA and PhD in Education with an emphasis in Culture and Development from UC Santa Barbara. Although my path was never clear, I took opportunities that ultimately lead me to my Ph.D. I decided to pursue a PhD in education because I wanted to help inform institutions of higher education on how to support students like me to have an opportunity to reach their goals that oftentimes stem from something greater than ourselves, it’s a desire to give back to our family and community. I examined the college and career aspirations and identity development of first-generation, Latinx students for my dissertation. Their experiences reflected my experience, so, bringing their voices and experiences to academia, was cathartic for me.

As I progressed through school, it became increasingly isolating and foreign, and my identity was drastically transforming. I could identify with fewer and fewer peers and I struggled with feeling confident about my abilities. In my first years of graduate school, I was embarrassed to not know many things, I was embarrassed about my quality of writing, I was not as articulate as my peers, and I was embarrassed about not fully understanding class material. Mindsets that helped me to and through were the following: I had to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable; I learned to be okay with being new at something and showing up even when I was scared. Further, my parents provided the emotional support I needed to navigate the unknown world. “Tu puedes con eso y mas,” my mom would say to me, “you can do that and more.” My mom also greatly supported me by making healthy meals for me to take to school. What a blessing! Also, I was a Ph.D. student in the same college my father worked as a groundskeeper. He worked there since I was in high school, our worlds collided when I ran into him on campus. Another thing that was a powerful influence on my journey was my Mexican culture. Knowing where I come from and being proud of benign a Latina immigrant gave me something to hold onto when my identity was transforming.

Lastly, as you reach for your academic and career goals, I’d like for you to know that the world needs you, so, please never stop showing up. Stay open to different possibilities, don’t count yourself out of opportunities by not taking your shot. Go for it, and learn along the way. Keep a growth mentality, just because you don’t know something now, it does not mean you cannot learn it. People are looking up to you, you are their inspiration.

In sum, I proved to myself that I CAN; I can pass statistics, I can transfer to a prestigious institution, I can study abroad (twice), I can be accepted to graduate school, I can do research, I can present my work at conferences, I can TA, I can become a good writer, I can become Dra. Ana Guerrero. It’s important to acknowledge that the decision and next step happened with the encouragement and support of others, I did not make it alone. Every step added up. I went from a timid Latina, insecure about her abilities, to someone who empowers others to show up for their goals. If I can, YOU CAN, too!


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