By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
In honor of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of female Bruins who have overcome challenges in their quest to effect change in the world.
UCLA Global, March 12, 2021 — “I’ve thought about going to UCLA since middle school, when I was there on a field trip,” says UCLA senior Beatriz Herman. “Yet in high school, my guidance counselor never discussed college with me.”
Beatriz grew up in Ontario, California, the daughter of single mother who had moved to California from Mexico. She only found out that she was undocumented in high school, when she unsuccessfully filed a FAFSA (Free Application Form for Federal Student Aid) application.
“I found myself having to figure out everything on my own,” she remarks, “and lack of finances was always a factor.”
Today, this lively woman with a fun sense of humor is a talented student — although she may not always believe it. “As a non-traditional, first-generation DACA recipient,* attending UCLA had always been just a dream. No one in my family graduated from high school, let alone attended college,” she shares.
Beatriz transferred to UCLA in fall 2019 as a communications major and has impressed the faculty in her department. Says Professor Rick Dale, “Beatriz sees important linkages in her class work and the wider world [and] designs clever projects to explore these important linkages. For example, she is analyzing Google trends and book data to assess how education is being transformed by the pandemic.”
Adds Mario Biagioli, distinguished professor of law and communications, “Beatriz is precisely the student that professors both love and are nervous to have in their classes, the kind of student who comes up with tough questions that make you look very good if you find a way to answer them, but not so cool if you can't.
“[Her] questions were not just difficult but unusual, showing a gift for spotting issues and implications that were not suggested in the readings or lectures.” he continues “She would make a mean lawyer, which I mean as a compliment!”
Forging her own path to university
A few years after high school, Beatriz tried to go to community college but couldn’t afford international student tuition. Things changed when California adopted Assembly Bill-540 (AB-540) into law in 2001, enabling her to pay in-state tuition.
“The day after I found out about AB-540, I enrolled in Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Walnut, CA,” she recounts. “I picked up the book with all the course listings and thought, ‘OK, how does this work?’”
She landed in the Bridge Program at Mt. SAC, which assists students in the transition to college. Roughly 10 years out of high school, Beatriz says, “I really had to start from the very bottom. The program was very helpful and had counselors for the participants, who were mostly low-income students.
“I didn’t even know this support system was there — I just stumbled on it,” she shares. She studied business part-time at Mt. SAC for three years while also working part-time. But after a divorce, a move to Los Angeles and the employment opportunities opened up by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program led to a four-year break from her studies.
Over time, she discovered an interest in communications and decided to return to school, overcoming a deep depression along the way. She enrolled at Los Angeles Community College (LACC) in fall 2017 and joined its Ralph Bunche Scholars Program. The program prepares students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities and links them to a supportive alumni network.
Beatriz dove into her classes at LACC, worked in student government and graduated summa cum laude in 2019 as valedictorian of her class. With the help of alumni Bunche Scholars, including a good friend already studying at Columbia, she applied to communications programs at 13 universities and was accepted by 12 – an impressive achievement.
“I think applying to all those colleges was just me telling myself, ‘The world is your oyster, you can pick anything you want!’” says Beatriz.
She ended up deciding in favor of UCLA, but the transition was bumpy. “The campus was shocking for me because I transferred from a community college where there was a lot more diversity,” shares Beatriz.
She found her classes challenging and began to ask herself if she belonged at UCLA. “I had always heard about imposter syndrome, but I didn’t really understand what it meant,” she says.
“When I started, I didn’t want to be part of an undocumented group because I felt that would define me — that was my defense mechanism,” she says ruefully.
She dealt with rising anxiety and self-doubt by overworking: “I over-read and over-studied and overdid everything my first quarter,” she recounts. Already feeling isolated, the intense U.S. political climate brought up old wounds about her undocumented status.
“I started having panic attacks at school,” she says. After a particularly intense attack on the steps of Kerckhoff Hall, she ended up crying in her car. When she went home, she said, “I’m going to quit. But even saying those words didn’t resonate with how I truly felt.
“That evening, I wrote a compassionate letter to myself in my journal: ‘This is what you’ve worked hard for, all you have to do is show up — you can do it!’” The next day she walked into the Undocumented Student Program (part of the Bruin Resource Center) and asked for help.
“The program has been so supportive,” she says with heartfelt emotion. Beatriz was so impressed with their work that by summer 2020, she had a job there, working as a liaison between undocumented students and UCLA’s Campus and Psychological Services.
The UCLA senior is on track to graduate in June and is currently exploring career alternatives.
Reflecting on her educational journey, Beatriz says, “While the challenges have been many, the rewards for my courage in adapting have compensated for those hard times. I am proud of myself for how far I have come, never once giving into my fears.”
* DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.