Co-presidents Alexandra Martinez (l) and Kaitlyn López (r)

Navigating college can be a daunting experience, particularly for students who are the first in their family to attend and/or those who come from an underrepresented group. Feelings of imposter syndrome and other challenges navigating the new, unfamiliar system are common and exacerbated when pursuing a profession where they don’t see themselves represented. UCI’s LatinX Student Psychological Association (LSPA) hopes to empower students facing these challenges by providing professional and educational resources to advance their careers in the field of mental health.

Discovering community

For Alexandra Martinez, LSPA’s co-president, discovering the student organization during Anteater Involvement Week was a revelation. The psychological science major grew up in California’s Central Valley as the daughter of agricultural workers. She arrived at UCI in fall of 2019, knowing she’d have to find a community on her own.

“I was hoping to find not only a community-based major, but also a culturally based community,” Martinez says. “When I found LSPA and read its mission, I was like, perfect. This is exactly what I'm looking for.”

LSPA is also led by fellow senior Kaitlyn López. López initially enrolled at UCI as a software engineer major but found herself drawn to fields where she could work directly with people and switched majors to psychology and sociology. While seeking experience beyond the classroom, López discovered LSPA.

“Culture is something that I hold close to my identity,” she says. “The fact that the association didn’t just focus on academics stood out to me. I think that's why I’ve stuck with it. It felt like home.”

LSPA students at graduate school information sessionLSPA provides a platform for students to discuss graduate school and the resources to make it possible. Active members benefit from workshops, alumni panels, and networking. It’s through LSPA that López learned how to put together a resume and an elevator pitch for networking with faculty. The association also shares a graduate school matrix with its members.

After Martinez trained to be a mentor in her high school’s peer mentoring program, she knew she wanted to be a counselor. She had a vague idea that she wanted to attend graduate school but wasn’t sure what that would entail.

“Before I joined LSPA, I didn’t know where to start. I wasn’t sure grad school was even meant for me. LSPA strengthened my confidence to pursue these goals,” Martinez says.

From mentees to family

Martinez and López credit much of LSPA's success and their own achievements to UCI social sciences associate dean and teaching professor Jeanett Castellanos.

“She attends our meetings and sees potential in everyone. She also refers to all of us mentees as her kids,” López says.

It’s clear from speaking to Martinez and López that much of their passion for community-building stems from the lessons learned through Castellanos, or Dr. C as she’s commonly known.

“One thing that Dr. C said that stuck with me was, ‘I want to treat you as more than just a student. I want to see the human first.’ That really resonated with me,” Martinez says.

According to Castellanos, López and Martinez are outstanding co-presidents leading a dynamic board. They proactively find ways to expand opportunities for their members that advance the vision of the organization.

“Through their leadership, collaborations with the board, and collective goals—their reach is powerful and significant. It is an honor to work with Kaityln and Alex,” Castellanos says.

Representation matters

This year’s LSPA keynote event was held on February 12 at the Social and Behavioral Science Gateway building. The annual event aims to inspire members and foster a sense of community. Carrie Castañeda-Sound, an associate professor at Pepperdine University, delivered the keynote address and shared insights from her academic journey.

“Her talk helped humanize the academic experience and showed how everybody's journey is not necessarily linear. I think people really appreciated that. I could feel the energy in the room,” says López.  

LSPA, and López and Martinez in particular, are devoted to reaching out to first-generation students who often come from underrepresented backgrounds, like themselves. (LSPA is open to students of all backgrounds and majors.) They know the importance of meeting mental health professionals, like Castañeda-Sound, who come from similar backgrounds.

“I think everyone should be seen and represented,” says López. “It shouldn't just be one culture that's the primary focus.”

Continuing the legacy

Both López and Martinez will graduate after spring quarter and are reflecting on how their time at UCI and LSPA has shaped them.

“I think my role as co-president has allowed me to achieve significant personal growth. LSPA is where I feel a sense of belonging and community. As co-president, I hope I’ve been able to create that same sense of community for others,” says López.

López and Martinez have both applied to master’s programs in counseling with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. López has already been accepted to two programs and is waiting to hear back from two more. Martinez is waiting to hear back.

“I owe a lot of who I am today to LSPA. The group really helped me form a foundation that I’ll carry forward in my long-term journey,” Martinez says.

Martinez plans to return to California’s Central Valley and serve the community of agricultural workers that include her parents.

“I want to close the gap. The number of Latinx psychologists and therapists is very small. I want to contribute to the growing number,” she says.  

Although López and Martinez will be graduating this spring, LSPA will continue on.

“With over 17 years, the group has made tremendous impact on the UCI community and the School of Social Sciences,” says Castellanos. “In a time where the university seeks to create spaces of belonging, LSPA is a beacon of light serving as an exemplary undergraduate organization creating spaces that celebrate cultura, facilitate professional development, the shaping of scholar activists, and mental health advocates.”

-Jill Kato for UCI School for Social Sciences
-pictured: Co-presidents Alexandra Martinez (l) and Kaitlyn López (r). LSPA events held throughout the year focus on academic and community building activities.

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