Adversity gives rise to character. For Karen Garcia, a senior majoring in psychology, personal hardships have revealed her strength of character in spades. It’s this fortitude that led to her success in college and path to a very bright future serving others.
Growing up in South Gate just south of Los Angeles, Garcia’s home life was not the nurturing and stable one that many are fortunate to have. At ages 13 and 11, she and her sister were removed from their abusive home and placed in the California foster care system; first separately, then together under the same roof. Though their foster experience was positive, they longed to be reunited with their mother who had also endured years of abuse. Eventually, her custody was restored.
But money was tight and the emotional upheaval had taken its toll. Garcia’s grades were suffering and she struggled to find the motivation to do well in school. She pushed through, graduated from high school, then began her studies at Long Beach City College (LBCC). There, she found her footing. She academic counselor encouraged her to apply to the school’s honors program, to which she was accepted and eventually became a President’s scholar. She graduated with her associate’s degree in spring 2019 with plans to pursue nursing.
Throughout her educational experience, Garcia found tremendous personal gratification helping her friends and peers navigate emotional challenges and the college system - applying for school, lining up scholarships and securing waivers to take the SAT free of charge. Helping others pushed her to pursue a new path: psychology.
Motivated by her success at the community college level, Garcia set her sights on completing her bachelor’s degree. When considering her options, Garcia says UC Irvine stood out from the beginning due to the strength of the psychology program and the various programs available on campus. She was offered the prestigious Regents’ Scholarship, which provides an honorarium for tuition, guaranteed on-campus housing, priority course registration and more.
The choice to attend UCI was also made easier by the existence of the Foster Youth Resilience in Education (FYRE) program. FYRE provides support to current and former foster youth at UC Irvine in the form of counseling, peer mentorship, tutoring scholarships, book loans and more. Knowing she would find resources tailored to her needs on campus provided a sense of security and she made the jump.
When she moved on campus in the fall of 2019, Garcia knew she had found a place where she could succeed. She dove into the study of psychology, taking a variety of courses offered in the School of Social Sciences and several in particular taught by Dr. Jacqui Lewis, a lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Sciences, a practicing clinical psychologist, and an advocate for foster youth. The two developed a rapport and found themselves working together to help foster youth on the UCI campus.
“Karen is an excellent student and I am so impressed with how much she also gives back to the UCI community,” says Lewis. “Karen has also been quite helpful to me individually as I mentor foster youth who are ageing out of the system and I refer to students such as Karen as a shining example of how much opportunity these young people have when they strive for academic excellence.”
Garcia is committed to mentoring youth who share her background, and is crafting an educational experience which will lead her to a fulfilling career helping fellow foster youth. Both academically and socially, Dr. Lewis sees nothing but bright possibilities for Garcia.
“I have absolutely no doubt that Karen will take her psychology background and her natural leadership abilities quite far and I expect to see great things from her going forward,” she says.
Supporting youth in foster care
Having been on the receiving end of FYRE’s beneficial programs, Garcia wanted to give back to the UCI community that had welcomed her and made her transition to college life manageable. She began volunteering with Foster Student Ambassadors (FSA), which is an outgrowth of the FYRE program. FSA is designed to raise awareness and support for youth from the foster care system who are pursuing higher education. Garcia became a peer mentor in the program, and is happy to be giving back to a program that has given her so much.
Janet Perez-Molina, counselor and program coordinator for FYRE student parent and families, is a board member of FSA and has worked closely with Garcia. Perez-Molina shares Dr. Lewis’ sentiment on Garcia’s positive attributes.
“She is warm, kind, humble, and so resilient. She's a gentle powerhouse,” she says. “Karen has overcome various obstacles in her life and continues to break barriers. These experiences have truly shaped her passion to help others.”
In addition to her work with FYRE and FSA, Garcia is also a peer academic advisor in the social sciences where she mentors and counsels fellow students on degree questions, course registration, major requirements and more.
She works with Estela Magaña, who finds Garcia to be a tremendous asset to her team.
“I know she'll do great things once she graduates and I'm happy that she's working in our office this year, since I'm excited to see what else she is able to accomplish,” says Magaña. “Our PAAs had a much tougher task this year, than any years past, since their training and job is all virtually remote and I'm impressed with how Karen has been able to handle being an undergraduate, as well as working during a global pandemic.”
Garcia hopes to take her experiences as a PAA and build on them to create a successful career in academic counseling.
Managing the challenges of being a transfer student, as well as balancing school and work can be difficult, so Garcia developed coping skills to help alleviate stress and provide a creative outlet. She began painting, and is drawn to abstract art with bold, powerful colors. A huge Disney fan, she’s drawn inspiration from a line in Mulan: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” At UC Irvine, Garcia has most definitely bloomed, and plans to help others do the same.
-Kara Roberts for UCI Social Sciences
-pictured: Garcia’s art, Garcia