UCI business economics major Rebeca Oliva Cardenas Gallaga

Rebeca Oliva Cardenas Gallaga has always had an affinity for math. Having grown up with a mother who studied business administration in Mexico, Gallaga found that business economics was a natural fit — as was UC Irvine in general. Now a fourth-year undergraduate student, Gallaga had heard of the university since 2017, when she moved to Southern California from Michoacán, a state on Mexico's Pacific coast.

"I've always had [this thought] in the back of my mind that if I was going to attend college, this was going to be the college I wanted to attend," she says. "When I got accepted, it was pretty much a decision already made."

Gallaga tries to go home to Harbor City, in the Long Beach area, at least once a month to visit her family there. But she has a packed schedule between her studies and her involvement with a number of groups on campus. For one, she works part time at the Economics Learning Center, which offers free walk-in assistance for UCI students. Through the ELC, she tutors her peers in courses she's already taken, in fields including business economics, quantitative economics and more.

Gallaga has been involved with a new course at the School of Social Sciences, too. Just launched in the fall quarter of 2023, LeadHER is a pilot program offered in conjunction with the Women of the Dean’s Leadership Society, an organization that aims to unite women via philanthropy, leadership and mentoring activities. A credited course, LeadHER is a structured 10-week program that matches students with a variety of experienced professionals in order to both network and receive mentorship.

"You don't get paired one on one," says Gallaga. Instead, students are put into groups, and the pods rotate through a series of different mentors, with a new one each week. Mentors might be alumni, teachers, or other affiliates of UCI. But they all have one thing in common: each has succeeded in the social sciences. One week, for example, Gallaga's group met Claudia Bonilla Keller, an '87 political science and government alumna who is now the CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.

"It was pretty fun to get to know more about her background and how being a female in a male-dominated area was kind of difficult to go through — but that she made it through," says Gallaga.

The group format of the course doesn't mean that students miss out on conversing directly with their mentors. "We were able to work one on one with mentors and women that have succeeded in different fields," explains Gallaga. She appreciated having opportunities to speak personally with women she admires as well as female role models who can help guide her through the business sphere.

Gallaga also gets to connect with some amazing women through the Hermanas Unidas de UCI club for Latina undergrads. "We try to do community service. We try to help each other in academics," says Gallaga. "We encourage each other to keep going." This quarter, Gallaga is serving as an intern for the club's active retention team.

Hermanas Unidas has helped Gallaga meet other students who have also had to persist through cultural challenges on top of an already demanding academic life. "We all have to work harder than normal students," she says. "I think at first, coming from my background was a little bit hard. It was challenging to navigate higher education."

Now in her final academic quarter, she has gotten the support she's needed not just to make it through four years at UCI but to thrive here. "It's just been a great experience overall," she said. "It's been a great pleasure to be at UCI."

Finishing her studies a quarter early will give her three months to figure out an answer to the next looming question: what she'll be doing after she graduates in June. In the long term, she hopes to work for two to three years before eventually applying to graduate school. "I've taken some corporate finance courses. I'm really interested," she says, pondering. "But that's the main reason I want to have some working experience: to know which field I actually love and go back to school for it."

There are a lot of options to consider. "It's nerve racking," she admits. "It's like a dream coming true, but also I'm kind of nervous for the future. I'm not scared, but I'm nervous [about] where I'm going to end up."

No doubt she'll land on her feet.

-Alison Van Houten for UCI Social Sciences

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