For Vilma Garcia, Chicano/Latino studies '11, academic research has provided an opportunity to question social issues affecting underserved communities. As an undergrad, she assessed levels of campus and faculty support at UC and Cal State campuses statewide for AB 540 students (unauthorized immigrant students) as well as the organizational vitality of these groups and the strategies they use to advocate on behalf of AB 540 students.  Seeing the enthusiasm and optimism shared by student leaders of these organizations has fueled her  passion for further graduate work in this area. She received the 2011 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research from the School of Social Sciences in recognition of her dedication to research, and is the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program's July Researcher of the Month.  Below, Garcia discusses her work and offers advice to undergrads interesting in pursuing research.
Q: What is your specific area of research?

A: My research focuses on assessing the political and organizational structures of undocumented AB 540 student organizations in community colleges and university campuses in California. My research interests extend further because through qualitative analysis in the form of semi-structured interviews, I am learning from the leadership formation and experiences from both club officers and members who are actively involved in these student-based organizations. Moreover, I am studying faculty and staff roles in AB 540 student organizations and how their respective contributions impact these organizations. My research study fits very well in the areas of educational policy and U.S. politics. I have the great opportunity to work under the guidance and mentorship from Louis DeSipio, Chicano/Latino studies chair and political science associate professor.

Q: When and how did you first get involved in research?

A: The first time that I conducted a research study was during the summer of 2008 as a participant of the Summer Scholars Transfer Institute, a six-week program coordinated by Santa Ana College in partnership with Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. During this intense program, I worked with a small research team on the topic of peers and interpersonal relationships. Our research explored which communication skills, such as listening and empathy, were important for community college students when communicating with friends, peers, and professors. We also explored if marital status and personality type influenced participants’ decisions of addressing those important skills. My research team and I found that various communication skills were important for participants regardless of marital status and personality type. At the end of the program we presented our research projects before research scholars from UCI, SAC, and CSUF. Being part of this program was a priceless experience because I not only learned the foundations and logistics of conducting research in the social sciences, but I also improved other skills, such as teamwork collaboration, critical thinking, networking, and researching. This research program definitely motivated me and inspired me to engage in research as an undergraduate student at UCI.

Q: How has research enhanced your education?

A: Being involved in research has given me the opportunity to question and think thoroughly about social issues affecting underserved communities, in this case, the sociopolitical issues that affect the unauthorized immigrant student population. I am totally convinced that research is a very powerful tool that can be effectively used to educate people who ignore any types of issues. Moreover, I learn from what is not told or written in books. Talking to student leaders from AB 540 organizations has allowed me to learn from their own personal and unique experiences.

Q: What has been your favorite experience with research?

A: The most intriguing and amazing experience I've had as an undergraduate researcher has been to witness the great passion that student leaders have about the DREAM Movement. Whenever I interviewed a participant, I could notice right away their enthusiasm and optimism when they talked about their student organizations and activist work. These students are strong advocates and activists who keep fighting for an equal education in the face of personal and social obstacles. For example, the failure of the DREAM Act has given them the strength and motivation to move forward to pursue their educational and personal DREAMS. I feel very happy and proud for all their admirable efforts!

Q: What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

A: I want to earn a Ph.D. in sociology or education and eventually become a college professor. My research experience is a stepping stone to achieving my academic goals because as a future professor, I will be prepared to meet all the demands required to conduct research, disseminate knowledge, and publish my findings. Before getting to that point, as a graduate student, I will engage in any research project opportunities to continue growing as a scholar and as an individual.

Q: What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

A: Make an outline or use some sort of organizing tool to present your concrete research ideas to your possible faculty advisor to give her/him a more specific idea of what you want to do research on. Do not hesitate to ask questions or express your concerns to your professor, since one of the keys to do a successful research project or creative activity is constant communication. The benefit of it is that you develop a strong relationship with your faculty mentor. Do not let professors’ titles, positions, and research experience intimidate you because they really want to help students achieve their goals. In fact, professors encourage undergraduate students to take advantage of all the research opportunities available on campus or elsewhere. Last, but not least, have an open mind to your faculty mentor’s constructive criticism and feedback and follow her/his suggestions and advice. Remember that your mentor wants you to succeed as a researcher and that doing research is a learning process, so all of us need improvement at some point.

-courtesy of UROP

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