Miriam Aguilar

Miriam Aguilar, ’23 psychology and Chicano/Latino studies, is the 2023 recipient of the Vicki L. Ruiz Award. The Chicano/Latino studies faculty-nominated honor annually recognizes an undergraduate who has demonstrated scholarly excellence, service, and resilience. Below, Aguilar shares how, as a transfer student during the pandemic, she found her academic familia and thrived as an Anteater.

What made you decide to pursue your dual majors, and specifically at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

Being a Chicana/Latina first-generation college student, I was intrigued to pursue my current field of study to destigmatize the mental health field in the Latine community. As I grew older, I noticed the discrepancies of mental health care access within the Latine community and wanted to take part in bridging those disparities. As a transfer student, UCI allowed me the opportunity to pursue a double major, Chicano/Latino Studies, which allowed me to further connect with my identity as a Latina and learn more about the community that I wanted to serve later in my career. Being in both disciplines allowed me to grasp an interdisciplinary lens, allowing me to practice and advocate for mental health through a social justice lens.

When do you plan to finish your degree and what are your plans thereafter?

 I will be graduating with my degree this spring 2023. My plans after graduation are to take a gap year and work back in my community at a mental health non-profit that serves the underrepresented communities of Fresno. After my gap year, I hope to go into a counseling psychology master’s or Ph.D. program.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment at UCI?

My biggest accomplishment while at UCI was being able to find my community. As a student who transferred during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with such a short amount of time at UCI, I had doubts that I would be able to find my community here at UCI. However, I was lucky enough to find my community within the Latinx Student Psychological Association (LSPA), and the Latinx space on campus, and now have the wonderful opportunity to be giving back to the same community. It has been a fulfilling and full circle experience. Throughout my time here, I have stayed on the Dean’s Honor Roll, and was awarded the Outstanding Chicano/Latino Community Engagement Award. Recently, I also had the honor of being selected as one of the recipients for the 2023 Order of Merit.

What activities have you been involved with on campus and in the community?

I currently serve as the co-president of LSPA on campus. This is my third year being involved with the organization and I could not have asked for a better space on campus. It has taught me what community and academic familia really are about. Last year I had the honor of being a Peer Life Coach with the UCI Counseling Center’s COACH Program where I was able to meet with peers to provide life coaching and support for them to achieve their goals and their fullest potential. This year, I serve as one of the COACH Program’s Peer Life Coach TA’s where I mentor the new cohort and assist the director of the program, Dr. Jessica Ortega. This experience has provided me an opportunity for personal growth, passion to be able to help others and a community of lifelong friendships.

Tell us about your research.

This year I had the opportunity to conduct my own research which looked at Chicana undergraduate students, their embodiment of Chicana feminism and their well-being. In my study titled, “La Malinche in Higher Education: Chicana Feminism Pedagogy Embodiment and Chicana Undergraduates’ Well-Being,” I had the opportunity to conduct a holistic interdisciplinary study that combined both my areas of study, psychology and Chicano/Latino studies. In my qualitative study, I interviewed eight undergraduate Chicanas, highlighting their unique stories and experiences with Chicana feminism and how that impacted their well-being.

Who has played an important mentorship role in your life thus far and why? Specifically at UCI?

There are so many people that have played an important role in my life thus far, but aside from my family and friends, I have crossed paths with amazing mentors here at UCI who have opened many doors and allowed me to reach my full potential. One of my most prominent mentors is Dr. Jeanett Castellanos, associate dean of undergraduate studies, who I first encountered in the LSPA space. She has taught me the importance of passing it down, and has further grounded my aspirations to pursue a graduate degree. She has also instilled in me a sense of confidence in my own leadership and ability to conduct my own research.

Dr. Jessica Ortega, director of UCI’s COACH program, has also played a prominent role in my mentorship experience here at UCI, teaching me to hone in on my own abilities and use my inner power to be able to make change. She has taught me the importance of being self-compassionate and an anchor on my personal growth journey.

Lastly, Dr. Laura Enriquez, associate professor in Chicano/Latino studies, has encouraged me to pursue research and believed in me to become a leader in my community. It is thanks to these three amazing mentors, some of which I consider to be my academic mothers, that have allowed me to grow and flourish to my full potential here at UCI.

Are there any unique circumstances that have played a major role in where and who you are today?

Being a transfer and first-generation college student, I had to go through the process of transitioning into two new and very different college environments. Within my community college experience, I had to juggle understanding how to navigate in such a short amount of time while also working hard to transfer into a 4-year university. Transferring to UCI, I had to adapt to the new quarter system, while also trying to find community, and opportunities that would allow me to get the most out of my college experience. The experience led me to many feelings of isolation, feeling like I was only going through the transition alone. Despite that, I was grateful enough to find mentors, friends and folk that looked like me to remind me that I was not alone, and that others were going through some of the same experiences. This motivated me to keep going, and has inspired me to make an impact on transfer students who may have similar experiences to mine. 

Where can you most often be found on campus?

You can most often find me in the Courtyard Study Lounge (CSL) or Science Libraries on campus outside of work and classes. I love getting a Matcha latte from Starbucks studying at these two locations. For really late night study sessions, you can usually find me in a study room in Gateway Study Center. When I’m feeling really stressed or anxious, I love sitting in Aldrich Park, listening to music and eating my lunch or a snack to re-ground myself to tackle the next challenge.

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

My favorite memory at UCI was being able to attend the Jennette McCurdy ZotTalk this spring quarter with one of my close friends. Not only am I a fan of her work, but being able to listen to her story and sharing her vulnerability in space with all of us was so wonderful. I came out of the room very inspired and heard from listening to her experiences.

Another core memory from my time here at UCI that I don’t want to leave out is being able to be part of the COACH program space. The space taught me so much about myself and allowed me to grow and flourish at the same time as those in my cohort.  Fast forward, some of the people in my cohort are now some of my best friends. The COACH space was a life-changing experience for me to say the least.

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