Catching Up with Latina Bruin Esmeralda Suarez '19
by Jessica Zaldana
Time at UCLA
As a former UCLA Latino Alumni Association (ULAA) scholarship recipient, how did winning this scholarship impact or shape your UCLA experience?
I do not think my UCLA experience would have been the same without the UCLA Latino Alumni Association Scholarship. Winning the scholarship actually made me choose UCLA because it gave me a sense of belonging before, I even started school. As a first-generation college student, the scholarship and the support system that came along with it reassured me that I was in the right place. Furthermore, the Latino alumni that I interacted with during my undergraduate career were so inspirational and encouraging that they empowered me to pursue opportunities that I thought were out of my reach.
On a personal note, winning the scholarship was a sentimental accomplishment for my family, especially for my dad. When I was in elementary school, my dad actually worked at UCLA. He was one of the many construction workers that helped build the school. Flash forward to ten years later, not only was I accepted to UCLA but offered an amazing scholarship. I don’t think my dad thought he would return to campus as a parent of a student, so it truly was a full-circle experience for my family and me.
A special shout to Soleil Delgadillo, Scholarship Director for ULAA! Soleil literally has been there for me since my scholarship interview. Not only did she welcome me at UCLA, but she also whole-heartedly welcomed my family. Beyond her warm welcome, she’s taught me the importance of representation, mentorship, networking, and negotiating!
Words cannot express my sincere gratitude to the UCLA Latino Alumni Association. I would not be in the position I am today without their support!
Did you apply for additional scholarships and/or student services programs?
Although I was a UCLA Latino Alumni Scholar, I applied for additional scholarships to help cover my living expenses. I applied to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), an organization dedicated to supporting Latinx students in higher education. I recommend this scholarship opportunity to anyone pursuing higher education because it is available for incoming and current undergraduate/graduate students. When I participated in the Quarter in Washington Program, through the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy, I also applied to the UC Presidential Public Service Fellowship and Robert T. Matsui UC Congressional Fellowship.
Furthermore, I was awarded a work-study grant and worked on campus all four years of college in the UCLA Spanish and Portuguese Department. I remember moving in early my freshman year to help other students move in and attend my work-study job interviews. I was fortunate enough to have secured my position in the Spanish and Portuguese Department before I even started my first day of classes.
I also participated in the Academic Advancement Program (AAP). During my freshman year, I bombed my Game Theory midterm and was terrified of failing the overall class. Thankfully, AAP’s Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs) helped me pass the class. Through AAP, I also had access to graduate student advisors. These students gave me a realistic perspective on the law school application process and law school in general. Whenever I speak to prospective UCLA students of color, I advise joining AAP and actively participating in their programming.
Other student services programs that I participated in:
- UCLA First To Go/First-Gen
- UCLA Law Fellows Program
- Los Angeles JusticeCorps Program (an AmeriCorps Program)
- Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Program
- UCLA Center for Community Engagement - 195CE Courses
- Hispanic Association Colleges and Universities National Internship Program
What are some of your fondest memories at UCLA?
- Ice blocking down Janss Steps
- Meeting Jorge Ramos behind Royce Hall
- Attending movie premieres in Westwood
- Late-night runs to Diddy Riese
- Studying at the botanical gardens
After graduation, you were an intern at Pensions Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Could you tell me a bit about your time there? What did you do, learn, and/or find interesting?
Following graduation, I interned at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program. The internships are short-term full-time positions in Washington D.C. federal agencies. The program facilitates short-term housing in the surrounding area and provides professional development workshops.
At PBGC, I was a summer legislative intern. In this role, I researched Congressional bills and monitored any of their related activities (endorsements, hearings, etc.) My internship was a great experience because the people I worked with were welcoming and so knowledgeable. I learned about federal agencies, multi-employer pension plans, retirement policies, and lobbying.
Have you given some thought to your future career goals or next steps or just taking it one step at a time?
The next step is law school! I am not sure what area of law I want to practice, but I definitely want to pursue public-interest work. Hopefully, in a few years from now, I am a pre-law mentor for future UCLA Latino Alumni Scholars.
Currently, you work as a Legal Assistant for CARECEN, an organization that provides free legal immigration services and resources, what does your role consist of?
At CARECEN, I work in the College Legal Services division for the California State University (CSU) Project. The CSU Project is a collaborative effort between CARECEN, the California Department of Social Services, and the Office of the CSU Chancellor to provide free immigration legal services to students, staff, faculty, and their immediate families. At the moment, CARECEN serves all 8 SoCal CSU campuses: Long Beach, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Dominguez Hills, Northridge, Channel Islands, Pomona, and San Bernardino (including its Palm Desert location).
I specifically work with the Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State San Bernardino campuses. Under attorney supervision, I conduct legal intakes, inform community members about different immigration legal options, prepare USCIS filings, provide updates on immigration policies, and collaborate with the university’s undocumented student centers and other university offices/student organizations. I absolutely love working on this project because it involves both legal services and community-based education efforts. When I am an attorney, I hope to work in a space where I can continue this dual combination.
Given the current public health crisis, what are some of the challenges your organization is facing and how does this affect your role?
Given the current public health crisis, all of our services are completely remote. This remote experience has exasperated the digital divide in low-income communities. Although our legal services are free, some folks have difficulties reaching us because they do not have a stable internet connection or a safe space to speak at home. Plus, Zoom fatigue is REAL! So sometimes this affects our turnout for our community events and limits who we can reach out to.
In response to these limits, the attorney and I have gotten creative with our outreach methods. We started having Instagram live sessions instead of Zoom events and those have been extremely successful. We are now reaching out to other IE immigration community organizations to collaborate on an initial DACA clinic.
As a recent UCLA college graduate…
Is there something that surprised you about or being at UCLA?
Although UCLA has a large student population, you’ll find your community! I was concerned that a large school would overwhelm me but instead, it made me a better advocate. Self-advocacy is something that we may find uncomfortable at first, but UCLA taught me the importance of using my voice. This lesson helped me form positive friendships and relationships with faculty and staff.
Is there anything at UCLA you wish you could have done if you had more time?
I wish I would have taken more advantage of the various research programs at UCLA. There are numerous scholarships to help with research-related costs and there is a whole are centers dedicated to helping undergraduates with research projects, UCR-HASS and UCR-Sciences!
If you had the opportunity to do to give your younger self advice, what would it be?
There is strength in vulnerability! Instead of hiding them away, embrace your vulnerabilities. You’ll realize you’re not alone and it will only make you stronger.
In your opinion, is there something underrated and/or wish you know about UCLA?
Take advantage of the career services office and Scholarship Resource Center! Even after graduation, I still communicate with the Scholarship Resource Center; the staff is extremely supportive!
Any advice for future students?
Do not be afraid to ask questions. Go to office hours and pick the brains of your professors, TA’s, and academic advisors. Go to alumni events and ask questions about their academic/career journeys. Join student groups to ask other students about their academic experiences.
*Best study spot on campus:
3rd Floor of the Arts Library in the Public Affairs building
(they have free snacks during finals week)