Name: Vanessa Nicole Torres (She/Her/Hers)
Major and current year at UCI: Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x studies, senior
Scholarship received: Caesar D. Sereseres Outstanding Service Award
Hometown: Hawthorne, California

What major milestones stand out for you thus far?

In high school, I ran two L.A. marathons through Students Run Los Angeles (SRLA) alongside my dad in 2014 and 2016. This last spring, I had my first journal article published with Johns Hopkins University in The Macksey Journal. I will be the third in my family to complete a bachelor’s degree from a University of California. And I will be the first in my family to pursue a doctorate degree, fully funded, and the second to pursue graduate school.  

Why did you decide to come to UCI?

When I was originally a STEM student it was the best fit for me academically and financially. It was also the perfect distance away from home where I was far but not too far away as a first-generation student.

How did you decide on Chicano/Latino studies for a major?

I originally entered UCI as a biomedical engineering pre-medical student in the fall of 2017. I was a self-tracked student who felt like a shell of who I am now because I could not explain why I was one of the few in the room. Not only one of the few female-identifying in all my 300+ lectures, but one of the few Latinx/es. The STEM field I was guided into put Black, Indigenous, and other people of color at the forefront. Even at my majority white public schools was the STEM field immersive and placed women as key leaders. I began disconnecting from my STEM education and immersing myself in my Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x courses and experiences in education themselves. This allowed me to reflect and look at myself as a site for discourse. Was I thriving in STEM or merely hanging on for the title of being one of the few?

I reflected on these personal and academic experiences and after a year, began majoring in Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x studies and double minoring in Latin American studies and literary journalism. I wanted to be immersed in the discourse of cultural ethnic studies but also to be visible in the conversations being had. It’s now reflected in all my work as the idea of testimonios as a form of writing and mode of resistance to documenting history was bred by my influences in Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x studies, Latin American studies and literary journalism.

When will you be finishing your undergrad, and what are your plans after?

I will be graduating in the spring class of 2021 with a B.A. in Chicana/o/x-Latina/o/x studies and a double minor in literary journalism and Latin American studies. In the fall, I will be attending Northeastern University in Boston, MA to pursue my Ph.D. in history. I will be working with faculty advisor Angel Nieves to further develop my skills in the digital humanities and to emphasize the importance of carefully crafting cultural narratives. My independent work will strive to investigate generational and emotional approaches to documenting Latina/o, including LGBTQ+ Latina/o/x, oral and visual histories. This way I can develop an understanding of how education and immigration experiences in Latina/o/x communities intersect in the framework of socioeconomic experiences, racial/ethnic identity & markers, and gender & sexuality identities. My plan after my doctorate degree is to continue being an educator, researcher, advocate, and mentor within and beyond academia.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment at UCI?

I have been able to take my research beyond the campus and from October 18-20, 2019, I was able to attend the Imagining America National Gathering in Albuquerque, New Mexico with funding, as an undergraduate student researcher presenter. At this conference, I was able to discuss my research and connect with other educators interested in my hands-on perspective. Later that year, I participated in the inaugural Johns Hopkins Richard Macksey National Undergraduate Research Symposium in April 2020. I was one of four presenters under the mentorship of professor Ana E. Rosas to pursue my research, create a virtual presentation for the online platform, and publish a journal article in the Macksey Journal Volume I from the University of California, Irvine.

Have you received any major grants, awards or scholarships while in pursuit of your degree?

This spring I was a recipient for the Order of Merit award from the School of Social Sciences. It is awarded annually to approximately 2% of the social sciences graduating class. Students are recognized for their academic excellence, original research, leadership activities, and service contributions to the School of Social Sciences, UCI campus, or community since 1983.

Within the School of Social Sciences, I have been recognized by the Department of Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x Studies with the Outstanding Chicano/Latino Community Engagement Award. This award honors my involvement with TRIO Scholars & Upward Bound, the School of Social Sciences First Generation First Quarter Challenge Program, and for bridging the university and the community by working with El Sol Academy in Santa Ana.

Beyond the social sciences, I was an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Honorary Fellow from fall 2019 to spring 2020 and a Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (SURP) Fellow from summer 2020 to spring 2021. The UROP fellowship granted funding toward my Johns Hopkins University Richard Macksey Symposium registration, travel reimbursements and in support of my UROP research project “Ascendance and Transformation: Investigating Educators' Approaches to Educating Working Class, First Generation, Students of Color into STEM in Inglewood, California, 2015-Present.” The SURP fellowship granted funds in support of expanding my research project into a digital project, “Humanizing Narratives of TRIO First Generation High School Students of Color and their S.T.E.M. Transformations during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

What activities have you been involved in during your time as an undergrad?

I am currently involved in the School of Social Sciences First Generation First Quarter Challenge (FGFQ) program. When I joined FGFQ as the administrative assistant, I hoped to help shape and build the community that will further the journey of more first-generation BIPOC students - as I had done previously with TRIO. With the support of the program’s administrative team and faculty directors, I have participated in spearheading new trajectories to aid student’s navigation of a remote learning environment and to encourage further bonds between mentors-mentees. To further improve my skills as a leader at UC Irvine and beyond, I participated in the virtual All-U Leadership Conference with the support of FGFQ from fall 2020 to this spring 2021.

Prior to my involvement with FGFQ, I was enrolled in a Directed Group Study under the advisement of professor Rosas from fall 2019 to spring 2020. This seminar worked as a directed group Public Scholarship Seminar in partnership with the El Sol Academy in Santa Ana. This course allowed me to work creatively alongside first generation Latinx preschool to 8th grade students through helping facilitate poetry workshops alongside public scholar, Sue Cronmiller. Four of us undergraduates in the seminar that consistently volunteered in the workshop and social events, shared how our collaboration with El Sol Academy as undergraduate leaders can influence how educators’ approach bilingual students, teachers, parents, and members of diverse communities at the 2020 UC Links Conference in UC Berkeley. 

Tell us more about your undergraduate research.

Having been a STEM student originally up until the end of the first year of undergrad, my UROP & SURP project demonstrate how the research I do reimagines how an educator’s mentorship and involvement with Inglewood’s working class, first generation, students of color will foster a new generation of STEM - and non- STEM learners - to challenge themselves emotively and academically as leaders and learners. As I was pursuing these new additions to my research, that would have involved collecting documents, photographs and other ephemera from students and staff of the TRIO program, we were at the peak of the COVID pandemic. I did not let it discourage me and rather I relied on my personal connections and experiences with the program to locate, collect, and carefully consider how educational approaches to mentorship have evolved.

Who has played an important role in your life thus far and why?

None of my achievements would have been possible without my parents, Maria and Juan Carlos Torres. Our life as we know it only exists because of their strength, courage, bravery, love, and support.

What’s your best memory thus far from your undergraduate experience at UCI?

Last spring when the pandemic led us all to quarantine, I decided to join the UTeach Program to develop a research project with faculty mentor and advisor Anita Casavantes Bradford, who I would be working closely with in the First Generation First Quarter Challenge Program all year. Under her advisement and because of the UTeach program’s design, I have learned how to not only do research by examining texts, videos, and images, but placing them in the context of a course development. I learned to take the educator’s perspective with the previous knowledge I gained on my UROP/SURP research to consider for and who would be learning from me in the seminar I was creating. Through the summer of 2020 up until this past winter quarter, I have been able to not only understand immigration laws and legislations that shaped migrants’ control under the government but how these narratives are made visible for UndocuQueer populations depending on location and emotional bonds.

Her advisement and my passion to understand my families’ oral histories have led to my spring 2021 UniStd7 seminar, “Daydreaming: The Undocumented Immigrant Reality.” Teaching this seminar, especially midst the COVID pandemic, in a remote learning environment, has allowed me and the students from UCI to learn Latinx history and create multimodal testimonios to amplify Latinx experiences.

Any other interesting tidbits you would like to share?

These experiences have filled my soul and encouraged me to keep shining brightly, to take my rejections as redirections, and to find the ways to work a system that was not originally made for my success.

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