A Mountain to Climb,
A River to Cross

First-Gen in Academia

Feliz Aguilar


By the end of this month, I will have graduated UC Irvine with my Bachelor’s degree. As I neared the end of my time at UCI, the thought of graduate school floated around my mind. Being first-generation, I never saw myself as a potential grad student. Throughout most of undergrad, I hardly thought about a graduate program at all. I assumed it was something reserved only for the elite. Eventually, I learned more about grad school and how it could be welcoming to people like me; but I learned about how it could silence people as well.

I have an insatiable passion for learning, education, and empowerment through sharing knowledge, but the more I read about academic spaces, the less I think I could empower myself and others through the Ivory Tower, a metaphor used to describe the privileged seclusion academics enjoy, high up and far away from the problems, and people, they themselves might be researching. Some might say that the times are changing, and universities are becoming more diverse, but the statistics on first-generation tenured faculty in the United States aren’t really out there. I want to believe that there are professors out there with similar backgrounds and goals as mine, who are able to make an impact on their community. I have met a a couple of them, and they represent a light at the end of the tunnel for me. Unfortunately, they are the vast minority in the illustrious world of scholarship. In thinking about my future academic career, I talked to multiple first-generation graduate students — people in positions where I potentially see myself — to see if my fears were true. But what set me off on this inquiry?

Part I: The Tweet

It started with this tweet by a Duke University economics researcher, Pengpeng Xiao:

“My jaws keep dropping as I go through 70 PhD applicant files. People w/ 2 coauthored papers & an interesting solo writing sample don’t even make it to the top 10 in my pile. The level of knowledge, research experience & passion these kids bring to the table is just remarkable!”

Objectively speaking, I can see how this post is meant to be positive. For the benefit of the doubt, I believe Xiao did not mean to be harmful. This is more about what it made me think and feel. Reading that tweet sent a lump in my throat and a pit to my stomach. I, a first-generation, disabled, and working-class student, didn’t have the privilege to dedicate myself to prestigious research programs during undergrad, and I was already in my last year at UCI. This made me feel certain that, because of my lack of experience, I would never qualify for a PhD program. I felt that I would always be rejected in favor of some other students who had the time, access, mentorship, and luck to have a prolific CV.

But then I read the replies and quote tweets:

“I realize the intention with this post, but it reminds me how as a first gen college student who had to work multiple jobs during undergrad to get through school, I never really had a chance at many of the PhD programs I applied to bc I didn’t have the time for internships & such”

“If you have multiple papers before you even began a PhD, it likely means you had access that others didn't. I wish more PhD programs would take a step back and stop this absurd practice of favoring multiple papers before someone even begins a training program.”

“I was that underrepresented student receiving the message that I wasn’t going to belong, because I didn’t prioritize research, or other indicators of excellence, while trying to navigate the unfamiliar environment of university. The discourse around this tweet made me think back to all of the ways people are shut out of academia, from an early age.”

“If applicants with 2 co-authored papers aren’t making it to the top 10 of a PhD applicant list, I’d wager that those in the top 10 are bringing a good deal of privilege, connections, and opportunities. I'm really not sure that 'passion' is doing any of the heavy lifting here.”

“[. . . The] message this sends to underrepresented, first-gen, lower income &/or disabled prospective students that are already navigating a system that wasn’t built for them is disheartening!”

Part 2: My Educational Journey

CONTENT WARNING: The end of this section mentions suicidal thoughts.

School was the first place I ever felt empowered. I’m sure many other first generation students can relate. I was the youngest of four sisters, with a working mom. Though our home was full of love, everyone’s busy schedule meant that I didn’t get as much time with my loved ones as I wanted. School became the place where I could receive the attention that a child craves and needs. I learned that by performing well, it made my teachers happy with me. I quickly became a teacher’s pet. In my mind, to receive the most love, I had to be the best student in my class, who finished multiplication tests the fastest, scored the highest, and earned the most Accelerated Reader points.

But as I entered middle school, I began to notice how unfair the school environment could be towards students who didn’t excel like I did. In my  hometown of Salinas, California, once home to the “youth murder capital of California,” you can expect to see police and probation officers surveilling students starting at the middle school level. I lived in the East Side, considered one of the most dangerous parts of Monterey County. The youth here were expected to fail. When a student like me emerged, I was unfairly favored. When I was younger this attention felt amazing and warm, but as I grew older I wanted to know why my friends didn’t feel empowered too. I noticed that some students were “invited” or “selected” to participate in programs like AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program in middle and high schools that offers support to “college-bound” students. AVID is known as the program that takes students on trips to various universities. It also helps students prepare and apply for college and financial aid. AVID can be exclusionary, as there is a minimum GPA and test score requirement. This leaves the “unsatisfactory” performing students behind in the college application process—a concealed message to them that they don’t have what it takes to defy their circumstances. The students who didn’t have an academic privilege like mine were neglected, perceived as “bad kids,” or lost causes whose potential was invisible to the educators in my school. 

I began to notice how unfair the school environment could be towards students who didn’t excel like I did.
The youth here were expected to fail. When a student like me emerged, I was unfairly favored. When I was younger this attention felt amazing and warm, but as I grew older I wanted to know why my friends didn’t feel empowered too.

The “smart kids” were allowed to take the few Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors classes we had in our Title 1 school (an indicator that a school is predominantly low income). With the help of college-prep programs like AVID, these fortunate students got to weigh out all of their options before deciding on their future. Though I took one Honors class and a couple of AP’s, I was not in AVID or anything like it. Frankly, I was already sick of the elitist environment of these gifted classes, and I thought the kids involved in them were a bit snobbish. In a way, I wanted to prove that I didn’t have to conform myself to fit in with elitist, judgmental people and still make it to the same universities that they applied to. Looking back, I don’t necessarily wish I had joined these college prep programs, but I do wish the school districts placed much more attention on students not considered “college bound.” When applying to university, I had no idea about the different campuses. I didn’t give much thought to specific career paths or majors. I didn’t know about the programs the different schools offered. No one, not family, counselors, or mentors, was there to help me during the application process, except for one morning in English class with the one school counselor we had. Due to my ignorance in the FAFSA application, I made mistakes when filling out my forms.  This resulted in UCI, at first, telling me I was going to receive a large grant to attend their school. I was ecstatic! I never thought I could be rewarded like this. This large grant narrowed down my choices, and I ultimately accepted UCI’s offer to attend. 

Entering as a Civil Engineering major, I was met with the cutthroat world of STEM. Professors who had no time for excuses, TA’s exhausted from overwork, and students who wouldn’t even share notes with me. I felt lost, alone, and isolated. I had a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease that was harshly affecting my energy levels, and isolation-induced depression seeped into my psyche. On top of that, I was made very aware of the burden I was causing my family by attending university, especially since my mom’s salary as a Registered Nurse meant my financial aid was significantly reduced. It was at this already low point that I got an alert from the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships. They informed me that, due to mistakes in my financial aid application, I had to give back the entire grant that UCI initially offered me, and I had to pay back the $5,000 that was already spent on my tuition for Fall quarter. I remember feeling my heart in my throat, racing as I signed into ZotAccount. I remember sobbing into the arms of my then-boyfriend. I remember the voices of my mom and stepdad, of my older sister and her husband, echoing in my mind, telling me it was a mistake to go to university, that I should have went to community college first, and that I was wasting money. Mind you, none of them offered to help me in the process of applying or brought up community college. I also didn’t ask for help. Since I had always been a high achieving student, it was expected that I would get a huge scholarship that would fund my university education. It was all expected of me, but there was no help offered to get me there. I also didn’t know where I could go to find the help that I needed. It was in this low moment that I felt like I had let everyone down. At this time in my life, I honestly saw no other option than to take my own life. I was 19 years old, full of sadness, shame, and regret.

A part of me did die in that time period. The part of me that wanted to excel for other people. A new person emerged, someone who didn’t want anyone else to go through what I experienced. I ended my freshman year in a blur, but I made it out alive. I came back in the Fall determined to do things differently. The following years in my college education were much more peaceful and fulfilling. I changed majors, first into Literary Journalism, and then I added International Studies as a second major. I regained my passion for knowledge, and I found a community of people who shared my values of justice and liberation. Once I neared the end, I began thinking more about next steps. With my affinity for inquiry, a PhD program seemed like it would be exciting for me—getting paid to study something that I choose, that I am passionate about. And given my hardships entering university as a first-generation, disabled student, I wanted to become a professor, preferably in Global Studies, who would be the breath of fresh air for other struggling students. I wanted to be the mentor that I didn’t have, but desperately needed. And to become a professor, I would have to obtain a PhD. 

For a year or so, this became my goal. My plan was to finish undergrad strong, try to conduct some research, study abroad, and apply to a PhD program; and one day, I would become Dr. Aguilar, mentor to the unheard. I knew it would be difficult, but I had conviction that my strengths would lead me to the right place.

Part 3: Unleveled Playing Fields in Academia

My attitude towards pursuing a PhD stayed positive and consistent for a while, but I kept hearing about the plights of graduate students, especially those who identify as first-gen. On Twitter for example, first-gen graduate students and professors talk frequently about setbacks faced in academia. This tweet from a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago provides first-hand insight into the unfairness of academic spaces: 

“It took me several years into grad school to realize that I was surrounded by & being taught/ mentored by countless children of elites, including ppl whose parents were bank presidents, IMF of icials, diplomats, federal judges, corporate executives, & garden-variety academics [. . .] especially since most of these ppl were also BIPOCs. The % of “legacy scholars” I found myself working alongside only grew after I became faculty.”

In thinking about the Economics field, where Professor Xiao is employed and presumably admits others into her department, I want to discuss the unleveled playing field of this arena. The Washington Post published an article last July, detailing the nepotism within the academic side of economics, saying that the statistics of “U.S.-born PhD graduates in economics [who] had a parent with a graduate degree” went up, from 1 in 5 in 1970, to two-thirds in 2022. While this study looks specifically at Economics, the report stated that trends are similar in all other academic fields. In the 15 most elite economics programs in the United States, 78% of the new PhD recipients had at least one parent with a graduate degree. Overall, a whopping 6% of PhD recipients in economics are first-generation.

Furthermore, this access to higher education grants “legacy” graduate students the knowledge of social rules and how to network in elite, professional spaces. It opens doors for them that are otherwise locked shut to others, especially those without relatives in the institution.

The author, Andrew Van Dam, pointed out that the reason people from wealthy backgrounds dominate academia is because people with lower incomes will prioritize stable employment. The academic field is most inviting to someone who has generational wealth to back them up if their funding is denied, or if they don’t receive tenure. Other publications, like Higher Ed Dive, have reported that in higher education in general, “tenure-track faculty are up to 25 times more likely to have a parent with a doctorate than the rest of the population.” 

In the 15 most elite economics programs in the United States, 78% of the new PhD recipients had at least one parent with a graduate degree. Overall, a whopping 6% of PhD recipients in economics are first-generation.

My optimistic attitude was diminishing as I read about more first-generation graduate students’ experience in academia, and then I read that tweet from the econ professor in February of this year. It sent me on a path to talk to other graduate students and ask them about their experiences and their relationship with education. What guided or inspired them to continue their studies?

Part 4: Interviews with First-Gen Grad Students

My relationship with learning and education is what brought me to ask these questions to people who are in a position I might fill one day. I wanted to know who or what my guests relied on to get to a graduate program. Among the four students whose stories I am including, two are current PhD students, one is a Master’s student, and the other just got accepted into a PhD program. I will be using aliases for all of my guests.

A common theme for all of them is mentorship, whether in high school or undergrad. Without mentors, the path to university would have been hidden, or difficult to find. Without guidance, they would not have known about the existence of the programs they are in currently. Fundamentally, what made these students consider pursuing higher education was someone, at some point in their academic journey, taking the time to listen to, care, and believe in them. 

For one of my subjects, Angelo, elementary through high school was a time of academic exclusion. He wasn’t invited to enter Honors programs due to his “poor” performance in classes. This gave him a sense of alienation. It felt like educators assumed he wasn’t fit for university, and it wouldn’t have been worth it to try and guide him. But luckily for him, he had friends in AVID and AP classes who helped him in the application process. It took the people around him, his community, to be willing to share their knowledge that resulted in his admission into university straight out of high school.

As Angelo continued his four-year education, he noticed that there were other students like him, being “passed along” from high school to college, without much direction or guidance. He decided to become a mentor to help students like himself. When it was time for him to consider furthering his academic career, it was a team of professors who helped him find and apply to doctoral programs. “It took somebody seeing that I had potential,” he told me. His faculty mentors had friends at other universities’ PhD programs, and they communicated about looking over Angelo’s applications to ensure that he could get in. Angelo mentioned that it’s not just hard work that can get you places, but knowing people: “All of us individually work hard, but it really takes somebody else to [...] help you and show you the way. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”

Amor, the Master’s student, also benefitted from mentors to inform them about opportunities. Amor was lucky to be enrolled in the AVID program during high school. In that community of high achievers, Amor applied and was accepted into university. But the transition wasn’t easy, not for any first-generation person. Eventually Amor found an undergraduate program that led them to several opportunities, and ultimately their current Master’s program. One of the professional staff members in Amor’s undergrad program told them about the Master’s opportunity. During their four years at UCI, Amor was in many different prestigious programs, and when I asked them how they found out about these opportunities they told me that it was a lot of “just falling into things.” The more they met people, the more they found out about different openings. “I feel like everything I learned at UCI was from community and mentors,” they recounted to me. While I was glad Amor and Angelo received guidance from their communities, it made me think about people who are more isolated, and lack the social capital to meet people who could open doors for them.

Dulce, the person who has just been accepted into a PhD program, is unique in the sense that she went to community college first. In reflection of her post-high school education, she wishes that she had an advisor or counselor to help her figure out a plan for her future. There were twists and turns along Dulce’s path, but she made it through community college and into a university. However, she didn’t have the most welcome entrance into the unknown territory of a four-year institution. She recalls condescending professors who made her feel bad for asking questions. It made her not want to participate or reach out to find potential mentors. Though these professors made her feel like she wasn’t smart enough, her fondest memories of undergrad were from the professors and staff who truly cared about her. “Unconditional support, that’s what made me push forward and persevere,” she told me. Dulce tapped into her inquisitive nature to pursue work in labs, where she found a mentor in her PI – the Principal Investigator in a research laboratory. The PI was humble and down to earth, letting Dulce know that it’s okay to feel “like a dumbass,” it doesn’t mean you aren’t intelligent or qualified to be in high places.

Dulce thought back to guidance she received in her adolescence, particularly the school therapist from the teen health clinic at her high school. When thinking about her, Dulce told me, “if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have graduated high school on time or even went to college.” In the throes of the pandemic, in her junior year of college, Dulce found herself in her kitchen thinking about this therapist and the impact she left on her. “I started thinking back to when I needed the most support, which was when I was in high school,” said Dulce. “I realized I really want to be someone who people could get support from,” she said. Dulce wanted to focus on school-based mental health services, specifically for teenagers and students. This realization led her to researching, all on her own, doctoral programs for the field she wanted to focus on. She had piles of notes and spreadsheets pertaining to various programs, and she applied to the ones that seemed like the best fit according to her research. After the initial shock of receiving interview invitations, and later acceptance letters, she is currently getting ready to embark on her PhD journey this Fall, with the goal of becoming a school psychologist.

Fundamentally, what made these students consider pursuing higher education was someone, at some point in their academic journey, taking the time to listen to, care, and believe in them. 

Of course, there are many unpleasant aspects of academia. The last student I spoke to, Soledad, is currently questioning if they want to remain at their program. Without risking a defamation suit, I will just say that they are having issues with their department. They felt that they were repeatedly singled out for being the youngest in the cohort, first-generation, and the only person of their ethnic background. When Soledad spoke up and asked about incorporating epistemologies surrounding their identity in the coursework, they were shut down and told that it wasn’t relevant. It seems that their identity matters most when it’s just a picture on a website, and not a real person advocating for inclusion. Even though anxieties developed, hindering their participation in seminars, Soledad still contested to these veiled insults. They asserted their belonging in the academic space, but it created tension in the department. The tension led to more ostracization, and Soledad is now at a point of reconsidering their position in the program. They tell me that they are lucky to have a few faculty mentors who support them, but it’s definitely not the majority, nor the people at the top. This wouldn’t be the first time that a person of a marginalized identity was villainized in a UCI academic space.

Considering these setbacks, and my desire to become a professor, I asked Soledad why enter academia, knowing it is not necessarily a liberating space. “I’m still deciding to stay [...] because of the resources it offers my community,” they tell me. Soledad adds that, “just having a foot in academia, having that title, is necessary in our society.” Utilizing the privilege that comes with a doctorate will allow them to go back to their community and offer resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.

Thankfully, Soledad is not completely isolated. They were lucky to find a community, outside of the university space, that helps them stay grounded. Finding a supportive community is an aspect that makes the difficulties of higher education bearable. With a strong community, it seems like a person can handle any hardship that comes their way. I think back to something Angelo told me during our interview: “No person is an island. [...] There’s always somebody who’s going to help you get to where you want to be.” Even if you are up against the 20-year veterans of the field, who might belittle you for your lack of experience, a reliable community might be the thing that keeps you in the space, long after that veteran has retired.


Over the course of conducting my interviews, I became optimistic again. While I was discouraged from that albeit well-meaning Twitter user from the beginning of this piece, my talks with current grad students changed my mind. I could see myself in these programs, excelling as I construct my thesis. But speaking with Soledad made me rethink my approach to empowerment through education. If I am going to fight injustice in every aspect of my life, I will need a community to back me up when the inevitable backlash ensues. All of the stories, from Angelo, Amor, Dulce, and Soledad, showed me the importance of grounding one’s self in community or in practices that remind one of why they entered their respective field. If I had a community to lean on during my freshman year, I wouldn’t have thought about ending my life’s journey short.

In terms of my career goals, and if I want to stick to my morals, I am unsure that becoming a professor would be the best option. It’s definitely something I would do in addition to other impactful projects. If I want to become a professor, I sense that I would be like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain. Only my boulder would be true inclusion, empowerment, and liberation in academia, and my mountain would be the Ivory Tower. Surely my energy could be of better use elsewhere. While I have personal sympathy with first-generation students, I can’t help but think of the people who don’t choose the university path. What about the non-“elite” students who don’t “make it” to college, are they not deserving of mentorship as well? Why limit my guidance to those who are lucky enough, in mentorship, access, or timing, to enter the university?

No matter the career path, I think I can share knowledge and empower people as long as there is community.

Alberto Lule

Alberto Lule uses readymades, mixed media installations, video, performance, and
tools used by agencies of authority to examine and critique the prison industrial
complex in the United States, particularly the California carceral state. Using his
own experiences, he aims to tie the prison industrial complex to other American
political issues such as immigration, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental
health. Lule creates artworks that explore institutional roles as gatekeepers of
knowledge, authorities of culture, administrators of discipline, and executors of
punishment. He is the recipient of the Public Impact Fellowship, Claire Trevor
School of the Arts, UC Irvine, 2022-2023. The 2020 Kay Nielsen Memorial
Drawing Award, The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Alberto received a BA in Art
from The University of California Los Angeles, and is currently pursuing his MFA
from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine.

Cassandra Flores

Hello! My name is Cassandra Flores and I was raised in South El Monte after my parents’ immigrated from Nayarit, México to East LA. I spent my summers in high school exploring politics and multicultural literature. This is where I began to dissect my own cultural identity through the works of writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Oscar Zeta Acosta. I find power in vulnerability and confrontation in all types of writing, including music. The lyricism of artists such as Clairo, Natalia Lafourcade, and Lorde foster an intimacy I hope to capture in my own writing. Things that bring me joy include my cat, Kiwi, dancing, concerts, and crafts that stimulate my creativity! As a student at UC Irvine, I study Social Policy and Public Service and I’ve been dancing with Ballet Folklorico de UCI for two years. My favorite poet at the moment is Yesika Salgado. I resonate with her experiences, the bilingualism in her writing, and aim to one day publish my own poetry book.

Tatyana Hazelwood

Tatyana grew up as a low-income, first-gen, African-American, Panamanian and Mexican student in both Orange County and San Diego, CA. She works as a System-Impacted Peer Mentor and an intern for the LIFTED Program. At UC Irvine, she is a Psychological Science (B.A.) and Criminology, Law & Society (B.A.) double major. Being a system-impacted student herself, she had a difficult upbringing and strives to find healing through success in education to end generational sacrifices. She began writing personal poems in her creative writing course in high school but often felt restricted to the conventional rules of poetry. Her works shared in Issue 4 are her most personal and meaningful poems.

Janellee Hernandez

Hello! My name is Janellee and I am a first-generation college student who was raised in a Guatemalan household. I have always loved how art has been a medium (in any form) that allows people to say something without actually speaking. Whether it’s to communicate a deeper meaning or is just there to simply exist. Photography has been something that I have always enjoyed and found that it is my way of self expression.

John Dayot

John Silvan Dayot is a rising senior at UCI studying English. He recently became an alumni of the award-winning nonprofit program Ghetto Film School (GFS). With a background in film, John wants to grow as a storyteller and develop projects with his community of talented friends. He believes art is always growing and is currently inspired by visual arts and capturing real life/people.

Daniel Le

Daniel Le is a third year student studying psychology with a minor in digital arts. Originally from Cerritos, CA, he enjoys exploring new things with friends, making spotify playlists, getting tattoos, and immersing himself in his Vietnamese culture.

Dontaye Henderson

Dontaye Henderson was raised in Atlanta Georgia and now resides in San Diego, California. He attends UCI studying to earn his BA degree in Sociology. His inspiration comes from his children and loving mother. He desires to use his education to help aid the struggling youth in society as a mentor. He enjoys writing poetry, reading, drawing, and cooking. He is grateful for this opportunity with furthering his education with UCI and plans to be the best version of himself towards everyone he meets.

Victor Lopez

My name is Victor Lopez. I am an incarcerated student at Richard J. Donovan State Prison. Serving a life sentence does not give a father much room to be a positive role model. Educating myself to motivate my daughter Arriana was the best that I could do. My past actions does not define who I am, with or without my freedom, I will contrive to be a better man.

Martha Trujillo

Martha Coral Trujillo is a 28-year-old currently attending Fullerton College to obtain a Paralegal Certificate after having completed a Master's Degree in Criminology, Law and Society. Martha's goal is to become a Criminal Lawyer and to continue to work with supporting youth at risk. Martha continues to write in journals and is currently working on Journal 33. Martha's passion for assisting and serving underrepresented youth has been the motivation for her to continue to reach higher and do more in the Justice System.

Patrick Acuña

Patrick was born in San Gabriel, California but was raised by the carceral system. After three decades of incarceration, he is the first member of UCI’s LIFTED (Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees) to transition to campus as a first-generation senior with an emphasis in Psychological Science and Criminology, Law, and Society. When Patrick isn’t on campus, he volunteers with Guide Dogs of America where he trains dogs for children on the autism spectrum and veterans managing PTSD and/or overcoming combat related mobility impairment. His other passions include backcountry hiking, working out, and traveling. He’s recently returned from a 30-day cross country road trip where he slept on the sidewalk of New York’s Time Square, a back-alley doorway in DC, and the parking lot of a Las Vegas Cracker Barrel.

Yuzhou Michael Ju

Yuzhou Michael Ju, a second-year Sociology major at UCI, is an international student who was born and raised in Chongqing, China. He completed his entire K-12 education in China before coming to the U.S. for college. Yuzhou is particularly interested in immigration studies, with a focus on Chinese Americans. Whenever he visits a Chinatown, he feels curious about the people there: what motivates them to move to a distant place, and how do they establish new homes in an unfamiliar country? First-generation immigrants, in particular, must have made significant commitments to their entire families in order to support the future of their offspring. In his free time, Yuzhou dedicates most of his time to volunteering as a tour guide at art exhibitions or historical relics museums in Chongqing. He guides visitors through exhibitions showcasing Dunhuang Buddhist murals and shares the history of Chongqing's role as the War Capital of China during WWII.

Feliz Aguilar

Feliz is a disabled, non-binary, first-generation, Latinx creator proudly hailing from the East Side of Salinas, CA. They recently graduated from UC Irvine in June 2023, double majoring in Literary Journalism and International Studies. Their passion for learning and experiences as a first-generation student inspired them to question the accessibility of post-undergraduate higher education, leading to the piece featured in this issue. The people fighting injustice around the world are their greatest inspiration, and they hope to continue standing in solidarity with those resisting oppression globally — whether in writing or on the ground.

Helena San Roque

My name is Helena San Roque. I’m a third year Literary Journalism major at UCI. I wrote my piece “Azat Artsakh, Free Us All'' as a nod to my Armenian heritage. However, it’s more than that— it wasn’t until college that I learned about the broad anti-imperialist struggle across various nations in Latin America, Palestine, Armenia, the Philippines, India, etc… In this piece, I talk about Armenia and Palestine: in 2020 the Artsakh war broke out after a decades long armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israel, which has committed grave atrocities against Palestine, continued to support Azerbaijan in their unjust war against Armenia, resulting in capturing Armenian territory in a trial of human rights abuses. But when your father’s homeland is attacked, what can I, an “American” college student, do? For me, to truly help emancipate my people, the answer was to get educated and organize.

Guadalupe Parra

Guadalupe is a first-generation student majoring in History with the goal of becoming a teacher. She was born in a tiny town in Jalisco, Mexico, and moved to the US with her parents when she was three. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by Mexican culture, and uses that as inspiration in her poetry.

Mariah Rosario

My name is Mariah Rosario and I am a UCI 2022 graduate and alumni. The following portfolio I submitted is my college senior thesis I submitted for my final. It depicts my story of self-emancipation and finding myself through independence and trauma.

Makyla McLeod

Makyla is a Black, first-generation student born and raised in North Carolina. She is currently entering her 3rd year in undergrad with a double major in International Studies and Literary Journalism. As the author of "I Educate", Makyla looked to voice not only her personal experience as the oldest child in a southern Black household looking to further her education, but to also pay homage and express gratitude to the village that continues to help her get there. In her free time, besides writing, she enjoys listening to music, reading, playing video games, and watching horror movies.

Serenity Thu Ritchey

Serenity is a third-year English major from Garden Grove, CA. She has a soft spot for poetry, among other things, like honeycombs, and the color green. She thinks words are pretty sweet and wants to believe in them. (Sometimes she does).

Josie Bitnes

Originally from Washington, Josie is a second year criminology, law, and society major seeking a literary journalism minor. She plans on attending law school to become a criminal defense attorney. In her free time, she skis with UCI’s Ski and Snowboard club and enjoys playing guitar, reading, and being outside in nature.

Corbin Li

Corbin is a first-generation college student studying Civil Engineering at UC Irvine. Growing up in California, they fell in love alongside Pacific air, late night guitar, and bonfires at the beach. Corbin’s passions lie in the intersection between engineering, art, and society, and they look forward to further exploring these topics in future years.

Erik Perez

First and foremost my name is Erik Perez and I am 20 years young. I am an artistic expressionist and Chicano artist. I’m from Southern California where we dream big and plant seeds for the world to flourish.

Francisco Vazquez

My name is Francisco Vazquez and I am 20 years old from the city of Santa Ana–that’s the place I call home. I’ve been in and out of the Orange County Juvenile Hall since the age of 14. I’m on my way to prison and I’m in a different mindset than the one I had 2 years ago when I first got here. In here I like to read, draw, and work out. I got a hidden talent which is to sing and I would like to pursue that upon release. I attend college here and I try to be a role model for my peers. In the future I hope to give back to my community, which I used to terrorize at some point.

Helen Barahona

Helen Barahona recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine (‘23). She double-majored in Political Science (Honors) & Sociology and over the summer she interned in DC with the Shadow Topics team as a research intern at the Political Violence Lab. Prior to working with the lab she served as a student assistant at the UCI Basic Needs Center, and as the managing editor for LUCID through the Dream Project Fellowship. During her free-time she likes to read, write, paint, rate movies on letterboxd and go bike-riding!

Jaaziel de la Luz

I am from Veracruz, Mexico and currently a second year math PhD student at UCI. I enjoy writing, reading philosophy, skateboarding, learning languages, traveling, hiking, jogging, sketching, and doing research. I am passionate about community building and exploring the world.

Juan Jimenez

My name is juan jimenez. 
I’ve been incarcerated for 
just about 5 yrs. In the 
midst of this quest, I’ve 
developed a hobby!
             I’m a writer 
from the ghetto! Don’t you 
disregard my message . . .
Told them all that made me 
feel like I was less than: 
             Here’s a little bout my story. Not a boy. I know 
             I’m destined

Pablo Ramirez

My name is Pablo. They also call me Pablito. At this moment Im placed in JH. In here I’ve learned many things about myself and my surroundings. I’ve learned how the brain works and how trauma affects your thinking. Right now I’m going to high school at the moment. Ima graduate in December. Im excited because I want to go to college. I used to be wild. I didn’t care about life Itself. All I cared about was putting in work for my hood and shit like that. that was me out there. In here Im more calm kick back. I’m changing. This change Im doing is mostly for my family. They need me out there to support them emotionally and financially. I [used to be] the man of the house. At a young age I would work hard and pay my jefa for rent. [My mom] would struggle and that bummed me out, but there were also times where I shit where I slept. Now Im focused on getting my education and learning new stuff every day. Im more open minded. When I get out me voy a poner las pellas to work hard to buy a house for my lil family. I want to be a welder. I wanna learn the art of welding. Im a hands on person. Im thankful for everything I’ve been through. It taught me a lot.

Samog-J Lemon

I am a current student at Irvine Valley College and I'm majoring in communicative disorders. I was born in Anaheim. I love spending time with family and friends; as I got older I realized how important that was. I am a Christian and go to church with my great grandma every Sunday. I like to write poems on the beach; it’s my new way of clearing my mind. I actually do write now to clear my head, something I would’ve never knew I liked but I find therapeutic.

Allan Plata

Born in City of Orange, Ca., my family and I have moved from room to room. Eventually my mother was able to afford an apartment of her own. I always lived in rural areas in the same city then eventually I would get involved with the people in my environment. Father was in and out the picture due to negative habits and mother was either busy or would put her priorities before her own children. My sister was a second mother and also a friend that would try to guide me to do better things for myself, though I was stubborn and didn’t want to listen to what others had to say.

Rachael Collins

Rachael has been an educator and teacher of writing in the California Community College system and at UCI since 2005. A proud homeschooled student, CCC transfer and UC graduate twice over with a PhD in early modern poetry, Rachael is committed to curriculum design that focuses on providing high quality, innovative, and democratically-centered writing instruction to disadvantaged learners, including those who are limited to online learning environments. Drawing upon the multidisciplinary, multimedia work published in Lucid, Rachael's courses focus on the transformative potential of personal writing in higher education. She thinks that when students are given the space and the tools to express themselves, they write beautifully.

Ryan "Flaco" Rising

Ryan Flaco Rising, West Coast Credible Messengers Director and PhD candidate in Criminology Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, leverages his personal experience as a formerly incarcerated individual to assist others transitioning into higher education at UCI. His research focuses on creating pathways for formerly incarcerated individuals in higher education and analyzing the evolution of related programs. Ryan's advocacy, including founding the Gaucho Underground Scholars Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has played a pivotal role in expanding similar programs across UC campuses. He has received prestigious awards for his work and authored pieces in various publications, showcasing the power of formerly incarcerated individuals in producing innovative solutions and sustainable pathways for their communities, encapsulated in his 'Organic Leadership' theory.

Lisandra Rising

Lisandra is an Undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine majoring in Social Policy and Public Service with a focus on Education. Lisandra serves as the Recruitment Coordinator for the Underground Scholars program at UCI. She is also part of a blended family and lives with her son and daughter who are both 14.

Mia Voloshin

Mia is a Freshman at University High and plays indoor volleyball. On her free time, she enjoys being with her friends, shopping, and going to the beach. She eventually wants to pursue college courses before and after she graduates high school.

Riley Rising

Riley is originally from Montana and moved to CA last year in eighth grade. He is now a Freshman at University High and is involved with jiu jitsu and wrestling at his high school. Riley enjoys skateboarding and free-styling on his free time. He wants to join the marines after he graduates.

Pedro Nieves

Pedro Nieves is a UCI alumni who graduated with a Bachelor's degree in the Arts. Born in Puebla Mexico, he immigrated to the U.S. at 2 years old. After getting involved with the Dream Center and Underground Scholars Initiative, he’s now passionate about advocating for underrepresented communities by using his photography and video production skills. He hopes to become a skilled photographer and creative and looks forward to applying to graduate school to further hone his artistic abilities and create a name for himself in the art world.