Staff spotlight: Estela Magaña

The fun-loving, hard-working first-gen undergraduate academic advisor shares what’s fueled her 20+ years of success as a social sciences Anteater, resulting in her receipt of the 2022 Leinen Outstanding Staff Award

Estela Magaña
 Pictured: Estela Magaña, center, holding flowers, surrounded by her incredible teammates in the Social Sciences Office of Undergraduate Student Affairs. Courtesy of Luis Fonseca, UCI Social Sciences

Odds are pretty good that if you’ve been a student in the UCI School of Social Sciences within the past two decades, you’ve crossed paths with Estela Magaña ’06. The undergraduate academic advisor and peer academic advising supervisor’s Anteater journey started in 2001 when she stepped foot on campus as the first in her family to go to college. Since being hired as a peer academic advisor in 2004, she’s been a mainstay in the Undergraduate Student Affairs Office where she came on board full time following her graduation in 2006. From her Disney, cat and Funko Pop-decorated office to her infectious smile and laughter, she’s spent the last 17 years helping students like her find their fit in social sciences. Last year, she was selected as the recipient of the David L. Leinen Outstanding Staff Award for her undeniable embodiment of the UCI social sciences spirit of community.

Below, the advisor deemed by her colleagues as the “bread and butter” of the office took a minute to share how she landed her dream job at UCI, her thoughts on why visiting an advisor should be at the top of every student’s list, what it’s like being “an Orange County girl, living in an extraordinary world” and why the people around her - and a regular Starbucks Pink Drink - make it so.

The basics:
Hometown: Santa Ana, CA
Majors: Sociology and Psychology & Social Behavior at UCI, Class of 2006
Roles in SSUSA: Peer Academic Advisor (PAA) Supervisor, main contact for Study Abroad Center, Liaison for Chicano/Latino Studies and Sociology Departments, “Chief of Staff,” “Suggestion Box,” UCI Wellness Ambassador

Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up? How did you wind up at UCI? What did you major in?

I’m an Orange County girl, living in an extraordinary world (lyric from another amazing OC lady, Gwen Stefani, haha)! I grew up and went to school in Santa Ana, CA. I’m the youngest of three (and just turned 40 this year, yikes! Maybe don’t include this part!) and my older siblings, Pablo & Vanessa, are twins. We are Japanese & Italian (maybe a little Polish) on my mom’s side and Mexican on my dad’s side. Interestingly enough, my dad’s school education stopped at 2nd grade, but he’s one of the smartest men I know. He came to the U.S. in his late teens. My mom graduated from high school and went into the workforce before the three of us came along. Both value education and knew that it was important for their children to pursue education and take advantage of these opportunities.

While at Century High School, my government teacher, Mr. Oveson, allowed UCI college students (majoring in criminology, law, & society) to come in frequently to meet with us as a group. They taught us a lot about local and national government and community issues. Coming from a low-income area and our communities made up of mostly people of color, they spoke to us about the police and how important it was for us to know and understand our basic human rights. That even though we were minors, we had rights that we should always be aware of. This had a bigger impact on me than I initially realized. It seemed so cool to me that UCI college students would take time out of their days to go to my high school and talk to us and share with us experiences they have had and to make us more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world. I also didn’t think of UCI as an option for me to apply to until I had more conversations with them and realized that maybe this would be a good school for me to stay local, too.

I started at UCI in 2001, stayed 5 years and I’m a proud graduate of the Class of 2006. Zot, zot, zot!! I’m a first-generation college student and had absolutely no idea what college was like and what to major in. I came into UCI as an Undecided/Undeclared student (now called Undergraduate/Undeclared). I was completely lost, since both of my siblings were still attending community colleges, so none of us really knew how it was going to be. I eventually affiliated with the School of Social Ecology, then declared psychology & social behavior (now called psychological science - PSCI, but used to be PSB…wait, I’m sounding way too much like an advisor, haha!). It was actually as I applied for the peer academic advisor position in 2004 that I added sociology in the School of Social Sciences as a double major. After submitting my application, I met with a PAA and they helped me with the process of adding a double major.

How long have you worked as an academic advisor at UCI?

During my undergrad, I was a commuter student and for my first few years that meant taking three OCTA buses to and from Santa Ana to UCI or catching rides home with my friend’s dad or if I was on campus late, with my own dad after he got off of work. I had a part-time job at the Santa Ana Public Library, but wanted to make use of all the time I spent at UCI during the day, so I looked for a campus job. My first two years at UCI, I never felt connected to the campus. I definitely had imposter syndrome, but back then, we didn’t even know that was a thing. I realized I needed to get more involved on campus and I also needed money to help fund my education, so when I found out about peer academic advising, I went to an info session (that also provided free pizza…I never turned down free food). I applied to be a for the 2004-05 academic year and luckily they saw something in me that even I didn’t know existed and hired me. The job gave me a sense of purpose and connection with the UCI campus community and I soon realized that I could help students out in the way I had been assisted when I first started at UCI in U/U. Through this position, I learned so much about how to make the most of my time as an undergraduate, as well as about policies, procedures, and so many things we don’t think we need to know, until it’s too late. Working as a PAA helped me open up, make friends in classes, help my own friends and family with academic guidance, and build community with my fellow PAAs. The office itself gave me a place to be in-between classes where I could study or just relax when I wasn’t working. I reapplied as a PAA for a second year and am so grateful to this day that they hired me for a second year!

My PAA supervisor was the incredible Ron Ho and he is a big part of the reason I am an academic advisor today. He was an amazing supervisor - kind, supportive, very funny, and great to be around. He mentored me and helped me realize my potential in advising. When he was leaving UCI, he made it his mission to help all of his current PAAs figure out what was next for them. Not the easiest task, especially with me, a very indecisive undergrad who had general ideas of what I wanted, but no real direction. Ron talked to me A LOT about my interests, my strengths and some areas of improvement, as well as supporting me when I applied to be a full-time academic advisor after I graduated. It was through his guidance, as well as the brilliant insight of Helen Morgan and Chika Kono for hiring me (haha), that I’m here today. Helen and Chika are not only the director and associate director of SSUSA, but they are the real reason I am here. I’ve been a “real” academic advisor for 17 years this August. They have both helped me tremendously throughout my professional career in the School of Social Sciences. Their mentorship, support, and confidence in me and my abilities have helped me grow personally and professionally, even becoming the PAA supervisor about 6 years ago, which would not have happened without them.

What keeps you here? What do you enjoy most about your role? What is most rewarding about being an advisor?

As cheesy as this will sound, it is the people that make up this office that have always been my reason for enjoying my job and coming in each and every day with a smile on my face (unless there is bad traffic and I need my Starbucks Pink Drink first, but they always know that too). I really love our office! I always tell my students that it is a unique experience when you are in our office, since all of the advisors in Social Sciences Undergraduate Student Affairs were UCI students. There is something special about the UCI and social sciences community where people want to pay it forward and guide the next generation to make a difference.

Being a social sciences’ PAA obviously made a huge impact on my life. I have so many meaningful friendships from when I was a PAA and throughout the years of working here. Connections with my fellow PAAs have been a mainstay in my adult life. One of my best friends, Nadia, and I met being PAAs and would never have met otherwise, since our UCI paths wouldn’t cross. I was maid of honor in her wedding years ago. Then there’s Dale, whose wedding I went to back in May 2022, my first flight since the pandemic. Anyone who has ever been a PAA, academic advisor (or both!), or worked in undergraduate studies throughout my time here has been a reason why I loved my job and enjoy it to this day. There are SO many incredible, amazing, wonderful people I have been able to meet and work with because of this office, whether they worked in our office, the School of Social Sciences, and of course the academic advising UCI community. I am grateful for all of these people, past and present, that have made being an academic advisor such a rewarding experience.

I feel so honored to be the peer academic advisor (PAA) supervisor in the social sciences. Each year, I have the opportunity to meet a diverse group of undergraduates applying for this prestigious position and it gets more difficult each year to decide on the group of 12-14 students to be PAAs. Sometimes we can feel disconnected from the student experience when we are in our offices all day, but having PAAs in our office allows us to engage with students, gain insight on common student concerns and this also helps us make changes in order to best serve our students. I absolutely love our PAAs! They are a big part of what makes our office successful. They create such a welcoming environment for students, especially those that may feel intimidated by seeing a full-time advisor. I enjoy the time I get to train them, work with them and help them gain work experience. Watching our PAAs grow professionally throughout the years is so rewarding. I’ve had the unique opportunity of supervising our PAAs to have them become my colleagues, co-workers, and friends. There is so much pride in seeing them progress, but also find their way through being a PAA in their undergraduate time and then finding this as a pathway they want to pursue after they’ve completed their UCI degrees. They have enjoyed helping their peers, found our office to be an environment for personal evolution and discovered their passion for working in higher education, which is similar to my story as well.

Commencement is also such a day of pride, when we get to see our students celebrate their accomplishments with their loved ones. The day can be overwhelming with such a big school and two very full ceremonies in June, but it is such a rewarding experience and such a fun day. When we get to see students that we have helped throughout their entire academic career or even those we may have just answered a quick question for, it is nice to have commencement ceremonies to see all the students at once and see how proud they are of themselves too.

I think life advice is that you don’t have to do everything or be everything to everyone. Many of the students drawn to majors within social sciences are empathetic and genuinely want to help make the world a better place by building community, solving societal problems and addressing important issues from diverse perspectives. Considering that, it can be difficult to know when you are taking on too much. I think even as staff we are guilty of this and putting others before yourself is pouring from an empty cup. I hope that students will take time for self-care and to prioritize themselves, which is easier said than done.

What are some common challenges that students come to you with, and how do you help?

Being an academic advisor in the school with the largest undergraduate population can be overwhelming at times. Our former associate dean of undergraduate studies, Mark Petracca, used to say, “We are the best not because we are the biggest, but we are the biggest because we are the best.” With a larger student population, we encounter more challenges and situations that other student affairs offices may not. Our office meets students with simple questions, like course selection, degree progress, resource referral, and just general advising help, but we also meet students who are having academic hardships, may be in academic recovery or being asked to change their major into another school if they are unable to make progress in their original major. In these more challenging situations, I try to get the full picture of what’s going on in the student’s life so I can provide options. It’s important for students to know that there are always options and it is never the end. Even if students are subject to disqualification, I’ll discuss with them their pathway to readmission.

I share my own experiences with students to connect with them and allow them to know their feelings are valid, whether it be imposter syndrome, feeling like they don’t belong, lost/confused, lack of direction, etc. I instill in my PAAs that they are valuable resources to each other, our office and to our students. We all have a story to tell and when you are able to share your story and make a connection or put a student at ease, then it makes things so much easier for everyone.

Obviously, a recent challenge for everyone at UCI and in the world was the global pandemic. I think this has helped bring a lot of things to light for us in the advising community, like being able to provide more remote services to our students who may not have a traditional daily schedule that our open “office hours” can’t accommodate. We know there are so many different challenges in everyday life that affect students and their academics, and we want to do whatever we can to address these and help our students succeed.

The pathway to graduation is not the same for everyone. There may be gaps in education, times where students take it a bit slower and some ups and downs in their academic journey, but the ultimate goal is that they earn a UCI degree and benefit from the entire experience - that everything they learn inside and outside of the classroom is essential to their success and reaching their dreams and goals.

What advice do you have for students who are struggling to balance academic and personal demands?

Remember to breathe. It is important for students to understand that first and foremost their health, both physical and mental, is the most important thing. Our campus has so many valuable resources that can help students in all aspects of their lives. Academic resources, like academic student affairs offices, the SSARC, LARC for tutoring and study strategies are available. They should also utilize the mental health services, Counseling Center, Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion, It can be hard to balance everything that life throws at you, but we have a campus that focuses on supporting students in all aspects and acknowledges that students are not just at UCI to survive, but to thrive!

I think life advice is that you don’t have to do everything or be everything to everyone. Many of the students drawn to majors within social sciences are empathetic and genuinely want to help make the world a better place by building community, solving societal problems and addressing important issues from diverse perspectives. Considering that, it can be difficult to know when you are taking on too much. I think even as staff we are guilty of this and putting others before yourself is pouring from an empty cup. I hope that students will take time for self-care and to prioritize themselves, which is easier said than done.

What are some future plans or initiatives that you're excited to work on to improve the advising experience for our students?

Being an academic advisor, we advocate for students by providing input/feedback to change policy in order to benefit students and create equality in the campus community. We are always looking at the changes in the college climate and adapting to changes to best help our students succeed. We have campuswide academic advisors meetings and actually have an upcoming UCAAC (University of California Academic Advisors Conference) in mid-May held at UCI. These are great opportunities for advisors to share their best practices in advising, how we can communicate best with students and provide the best experiences for undergraduates both UCI and UC-wide. Our goal is always to help students get the most out of their education and time here, so they can look back on their undergraduate time with no regrets.

An on-going project for me has been our undergraduate website in social sciences. I hope to continue to get feedback from students and collaborate with communications on making our website more user friendly and easier to navigate. We want to make sure that students can easily access resources needed for them 24/7 and not just during our office hours.

What do you hope students take away from their interactions with you as their advisor?

My main hope is that they know our office is here to support them and help guide them through their undergraduate career. I hope that students leave my office feeling better about their academic concerns and feel unburdened and relieved when given the options they have available, since many academic issues tend to feel so overwhelming. My office is a chaotic mess of Disney stuff, cats, Funko Pops, fandom stuff, etc and may look like a Target exploded all over the place, but many students compliment it and like it! I hope it provides them with a welcoming and comfortable environment to speak with an advisor. We aren’t intimidating and coming to our office should be something they look forward to and not something they dread.

When working with students, I also want them to take full advantage of all of the opportunities they can while pursuing their undergraduate degree. Besides peer advising, my favorite thing I did while being at UCI was studying abroad at the University of Cambridge, Pembroke College in the Summer of 2005. For me, studying abroad was my first time traveling outside of the U.S. There was a lot of preparation, like applying for the program, obtaining a passport, enrolling in courses and so many firsts that I encountered. The experience opened my eyes to a world outside of the “Irvine bubble” to more global perspectives. We were able to travel throughout parts of the UK, like Bath, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and one of my favorite places, Edinburgh, Scotland! My film studies professor would hang out with us in the evenings on campus to share stories and discuss film, poetry, our college lives and so much more. I hadn’t experienced such a relaxed environment with faculty before and it makes you realize they are people too with shared experiences.

Fun facts:

Dream vacation: JAPAN!!! An extended vacation to make sure I have time to go to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea! I also want to see the cherry blossoms, visit so many different tourist attractions and eat all the delicious ramen.

Favorite Disney character: Daisy Duck! Sassy and stylish, what more could you ask for? (Literally just went yesterday and got a picture with Daisy Duck in her 100 Years of Wonder outfit. Totally fangirled on her!) Favorite Disney princess: Belle - she reads, enough said.

Favorite food: Lasagna and enchiladas - basically, if it has cheese and sauce, I’m into it.

Favorite drink: Most recent (last year or so) obsession is ShareTea - my go-to drink being Mango Green Milk Tea w/lychee jelly. Starbucks go-to: Pink Drink, Dunkin’ Donuts go-to: Golden Peach Coconut Refresher.

Favorite song/artist: Dashboard Confessional and Motion City Soundtrack are two bands that I have loved for so long and gone to more shows than probably any other artist. I’ve seen both bands in multiple states and I don’t think it is even possible for me to miss a show when they tour. My last show pre-pandemic was Motion City Soundtrack in February 2020 in their hometown, Minneapolis, MN and my first show post-pandemic was Dashboard Confessional in February 2022 at the Troubadour in LA. Also, pretty obsessed with Lizzo and Kelly Clarkson always. Pretty much every song of theirs is a personal anthem, a song you will listen to while you get through it.

Favorite hobby: I love traveling, going to concerts, plays, and MUSICALS!!! These are usually the reasons I’m traveling to see something, somewhere. When I can, I love visiting NYC for Broadway shows and changing seasons, especially in the winter, where you get to see all of the holiday decorations. I’m a Magic Key holder, so most weekends you’ll find me at Disneyland or DCA, getting my steps in, enjoying the magic, people watching, buying more ears and being sprinkled with pixie dust.

Favorite TV shows: I Love Lucy, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec, The Golden Girls, Doctor Who, all of the Law & Order shows; Recent tv obsessions: Shrinking, Jury Duty (reality-ish show), Murder She Wrote reruns.

Favorite animal: Well obviously cats since I’m a proud cat mom to my six-year-olds, Nori & Olive, who I’ve raised since they were kittens. 

 - Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences



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