Tu puedes hacer todo lo que tu te propongas. (You can do whatever you set your mind to.)
Bethany Urbano and her sister heard these words often while growing up in their Santa Ana home. Their mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before they were born, didn’t have an opportunity to continue school beyond first grade. Her mom’s experience gave Bethany a very personal understanding of the connection between poverty and literacy, and served as a driving force in her decision to pursue an education. With her mom and a few key mentors in her corner, Bethany has blazed a new path as a first-generation Anteater at UCI – an experience she’s packed with as many opportunities as she could. In June, she’ll be one of only two social sciences undergrads who gets to address the 2021 graduating class. While the ceremony will be remote, the sense of accomplishment and sacrifice it took her to get to this point is every bit real, and something Urbano will celebrate with her family proudly at her side and her team of mentors cheering from afar.
“I’m so thankful to my mentors and my family - especially my mom - who believed in me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here today without their guidance and support. Gracias, mamá.”
An active Anteater
Urbano had her pick of several universities, but she chose UCI because of the Southern California campus’s generous financial aid package and programmatic focus on students like her who are the first in their family to go to college. More than half of UCI’s undergraduate students identify as first-generation, and the campus has twice been named by The New York Times as the top U.S. university "doing the most for the American dream" based on – among other factors - the number of low-income and middle-income students who attend and graduate.
“Being a first-generation student meant that I couldn’t take for granted what my undergraduate university had to offer,” she says. “I vowed before my first day that I was going to get the most out of my experience and take advantage of every opportunity I could.”
During her first week on campus, she made an appointment with the Study Abroad Center to find out what it would take to get to Japan for a quarter. She left the center with a plan in hand that would come to fruition her third year.
She chose to double major in political science and education science – a degree combination that allowed her to study how resources can be put to work to help alleviate poverty and advance education domestically and internationally. She applied that knowledge through
Global Connect – an educational outreach program that also gave her experience in the classroom. She helped translate university-level concepts about globalization and international relations into interactive weekly lessons that she team taught alongside teachers in freshman dual immersion Spanish/English classes at Laguna Hills High School. From day one, Global Connect director Jasmine Esquivias saw how dedicated Urbano was to making a mark in her high school students’ lives through education and strengthening their understanding of global issues.
“Bethany is an extraordinary individual who’s passionate about education and cultivating a difference,” says Esquivias. “Utilizing her knowledge from her major focus in political science and education, she’s dedicated herself to be an agent of change. She’s contributed her talents, intellect, and service to not only UCI but her community at large. She is truly a global citizen with a bright future.”
Urbano joined the Social Sciences Deans Ambassadors Council where she partnered with other outgoing Anteater advocates on campus to host events aimed at creating conversations among diverse communities.
She also worked as a peer academic advisor in the School of Education where she helped new and current students plan out schedules and find classes while providing a listening ear when they just needed to chat with someone about their experience. “A large number of these students identified as low-income or racial ethnic minorities, which enabled me to connect with them at a deeper level and pass down tools that would aid them in their academic endeavors,” she says. With the support of her academic advising team, she successfully launched the School of Education’s inaugural research fair in hopes of motivating students to participate in education centered research and initiatives.
“The deep care and commitment Bethany has to serving our campus community is evident not only in the supportive advising environment she’s helped build for education students, but also in the many opportunities she’s created for our Anteaters to grow and connect,” says Sarah McDougall, academic advisor. “She is such a bright presence, and her infectiously kind and creative spirit uplifts everyone around her.”
Urbano’s work as a peer advisor honed skills she would draw heavily from this past year as a resident advisor in Middle Earth Housing where, during COVID and in an entirely remote educational setting, she’s supervised and mentored 28 first-year undergraduate students. Her calm, steady hand helped her guide residents through an unprecedented world experience marked by strict lockdown and distancing measures. She’s been a key figure in their lives as they’ve grappled with common, yet heightened, first-year experiences in identity exploration, mental health and wellness - all while juggling academics via Zoom and limited physical contact with loved ones.
“It’s been really tough making our way through this past year while we were all learning together, but it’s been amazing to see the resilience our students have shown in navigating this new normal,” she says. Her mother’s words – tu puedes hacer todo lo que tu te propongas (you can do whatever you set your mind to) – served as an underlying current of strength throughout the experience.
Research that resonates
While Urbano considers herself extremely fortunate to be pursuing higher education, she acknowledges the path hasn’t been easy. With that in mind, she’s made a point to uplift the voices and experiences of low-income and racial ethnic minority students through formal research, first via the School of Social Sciences Summer Academic Enrichment Program and then as an honors student. Her senior honors thesis – advised by faculty mentors Jeanett Castellanos and Caesar Sereseres – examined organizational barriers that limit low-income students from participating in internships. Widely considered as gateway opportunities for future careers, Urbano’s research has found that many internships are completed without pay and therefore limit the ability of low-income students to participate.
“The decision to accept an unpaid internship is difficult for low-income students who are unable to financially support themselves throughout an extensive period of time or pay out of pocket expenses. This issue makes unpaid internships a serious and pressing problem for social mobility,” she says. “Specifically, for low-income students, unpaid internships can become barriers that limit both obtaining a decent occupation after college and climbing the socio-economic ladder.” She hopes that by illuminating this critical gap, more employers and universities will work to close it through funded opportunities.
She’s also widening her reach. In the fall, she was named the recipient of a $7,000 Barnes and Noble Scholarship to support international literacy. Her project is a very personal one that connects her research with action in her mom’s hometown in Michoacán, Mexico. Urbano will be using the funds to set up a library in an empty room of the community school where students can check out books, have access to needed supplies and pursue enrichment opportunities in an afterschool program. The supplies and logistics are still being worked out due to the complications COVID created with international shipping, but it’s a project she will see through as her dedication to changing communities through education remains strong.
After graduating in June, she plans to pursue a career in corporate social responsibility where she can help guide philanthropic money to this cause. And she has her pick of more than half a dozen top tier master’s programs to which she’s been accepted.
“I’m passionate about helping countries become more sustainable through development of better education systems because I know how much it’s has changed my life and the opportunities it’s now opened for my whole family,” she says.
“Education is the key to a better future.”
-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences