Maricela Banuelos

Maricela Bañuelos, fourth year UCI sociology graduate student, has been named the recipient of two prestigious fellowships. The NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship will support one year of full-time dissertation writing and the UC-HSI DDI President’s Pre-Professoriate Fellowship Award includes a one-year, $30,000 stipend to enhance faculty diversity and pathways to the professoriate for underrepresented students from California Hispanic Serving Institutions. She is also one of two 2024 Kathy Alberti Prize winners, an honor that recognizes a UCI social sciences graduate student who holds truly outstanding promise as a future professor or academic. Below, Bañuelos shares what - and who - has inspired and guided her journey to become a sociology professor as a first-generation college student.

What’s propelled your passion for sociology, and specifically at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

I first decided that I wanted to become a sociology professor as an undergraduate at the University of California (UC) Santa Barbara while taking courses on sociology of education and social inequality. My professors and their course content allowed me to understand how systems of oppression can limit peoples’ life opportunities and disadvantage people from my ethnic and socio-economic background. These courses allowed me to interrogate and contextualize the struggles I was facing as a first-generation college student and women of color from a low-socio-economic background.

I wanted to study at UCI because it is a Hispanic Serving Institution, serves a large first-generation college student population, and because it would allow me to be close to my family. I earned my master’s in educational policy and social context at UC Irvine in the School of Education before beginning my Ph.D. in the Department of Sociology within the School of Social Sciences.

I strongly believe that everyone deserves an equal chance at self-realization. Something that has always troubled me is the amount of talent and potential that is never developed due to structural inequality and systemic oppression. I hope that my research can provide meaningful insights on how universities’ policies and programs can adapt to better serve and support underrepresented students.

Tell us about your research. What problem will your findings help solve?

My dissertation focuses on the seals and leaks in the Latine doctoral pipeline. The extant research provides the groundwork for understanding some of the most salient factors affecting the Latine Ph.D. pipeline, however the prior literature is limited in three key ways that I aim to address in my dissertation. Firstly, most studies focus solely on Latine that have successfully enrolled into Ph.D. programs (Bañuelos & Flores, 2021; Ramirez, 2011; Espinoza, 2010) and exclude Latine that applied to Ph.D. programs but were not admitted or declined admission. Secondly, prior studies examine the Latine Ph.D. pathway at one point in time (Bañuelos & Flores, 202; Martinez, 2018), and do not examine how support structures and resources at one juncture of the doctoral pathway can affect subsequent experiences. Thirdly, studies have not examined the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Latines’ trajectories despite the way it amplified existing inequalities (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; University of California, Office of the President, 2020; Saenz & Sparks, 2020). While sociology of education scholars broadly understand the inequitable processes that shape Latine Ph.D. trajectories, my dissertation meaningfully contributes to the field by examining these processes longitudinally, underscoring the impact of COVID-19, and by including Latines with nonlinear or stifled Ph.D. pathways whose experiences are important to fully understanding the seals and leaks in the Latine Ph.D. pipeline.

Where can your work be found if someone wanted to learn more about your research? (List any publications you’ve had and any pending in peer-reviewed journals).

  • Flores, G.M., Bañuelos, M., and Harris, and P. R. "What are you doing here?”: Examining minoritized undergraduate student experiences in STEM at a Minority Serving Institution. (2023) Journal for STEM Education Research.
  • Li, Q., Bañuelos, M., Liu, Y., and Xu, Di. “Online Instruction for a Humanized Experience: Techniques used by College Instructors.” (2022). Computers and Education.
  • Flores, G.M. and Bañuelos, M. "Gendered Deference: Perceptions of Authority and Competence Among Latina/o Physicians in Medical Institutions." (2021). Gender & Society.
  • Bañuelos, M. and Flores, G.M. “I Could See Myself”: Professors’ Influence in First- Generation Latinx College Students’ Pathways into Doctoral Programs.” (2021). Race Ethnicity and Education.
  • Morales-Gracia, M., Dorman, J., Bañuelos, M., Park, E., Cabrera, J., and Baker, R.B. “Community College Students’ Decision-Making within a Stratified Postsecondary Education System: The Case of Cross-Enrollment.” (2021). Journal of Higher Education.

What organizations, foundations, and others have funded your research while you’ve been at UCI? 

  • 2023-24, Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellow (Graduate-Mentor), Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, UC Irvine               
  • 2023-24, David P. Gardner Research Fellow, UC Berkeley
  • 2021, Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) Summer Fellowship, DTEI, UC Irvine   
  • 2021, Ford Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, Ford Foundation

Give us a quick rundown of your student and campus accomplishments and activities.


  • 2024, Kathy Alberti Prize, School of Social Sciences, UCI
  • 2024, Faculty First-Look Scholar, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, NYU
  • 2021, Certificate in Inclusive Hybrid Teaching, Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI), UCI
  • 2021, Latino Excellence and Achievement Award, Office of Inclusive Excellence and Latinx Resource Center, UCI

Campus Activities/ Community Outreach:

  • Competitive Edge Fellowship Writing Mentor in 2023- Served as a writing mentor and panelist during a 6-week research program aimed at supporting the transition and acclimation of underrepresented doctoral students. I provided 8 incoming Ph.D. students in social sciences and humanities written and verbal feedback on their fellowship personal and research statements. I also served on workshop panels where I talked about my experiences utilizing UCI resources, work-life balance, mentor relationships, time-management, and managing finances as a grad student.
  • Undergraduate student mentorship- I have mentored eight undergraduate students on key qualitative data analysis concepts, utilizing qualitative coding software, and navigating graduate schools’ hidden curriculum. Most recently, I guided two of my undergraduate research assistants (RAs) in developing a research proposal and budget that was successfully funded through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program’s Interdisciplinary Research Teams Fellows Award. I am currently supervising and guiding my RAs in developing a research poster and research PowerPoint presentation that they will present at UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program Symposium and the Calit2 Interdisciplinary Research Team Presentation Session.
  • Higher Education Outreach Team- While completing my master’s at UC Irvine’s (UCI) School of Education, I became part of the Higher Education Outreach Team. My colleagues and I facilitated workshops for undergraduates and high school students related to college access, research involvement, and professional development. For instance, in one of our workshops we helped edit college personal statements for low-income Vietnamese high school students. We also held a workshop for undergraduates on the benefits of being a research assistant (RA), connected students with RA opportunities, and provided students with email templates on soliciting RA opportunities. We catered our workshops to serve the needs of students of color and first-generation students. I later became the co-chair of DECADE, where I served as a liaison between students and faculty and developed new initiatives and infrastructure for raising doctoral students' critical consciousness as researchers and educators.
  • La Escuelita- As an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, I strove to provide guidance and resources to other low-income, first-generation college students. For two years, I was a member and officer for La Escuelita [The Little School], a non-profit organization, whose primary objective is to promote higher education for low-income students of color in K-12. The most notable of our events was the Student Parent Conference (SPC). Approximately 200 students and parents from low-income high schools attended our SPC, where we provided Spanish and English workshops on financial aid, A-G requirements, life in college, and student and parent panels. I leveraged my linguistic capital to bridge the US educational institution to immigrant parents. As Fundraising Chair, I was responsible for organizing fundraisers for our events and the scholarships awarded to participating SPC students. Our work supported underrepresented students' journey to higher education by providing a holistic array of college information and financial support.

Who have been your faculty mentors while here, and what impact have they had on your graduate career?

Dr. Glenda Flores is my dissertation co-chair and has been my main mentor throughout graduate school. I have always looked up to Dr. Flores because she is one of few professors who has a similar background to my own. In fact, both of our parents are from Zacatecas, Mexico (I like to think that we may be 7th cousins four times removed or something), both of our parents faced severely limited educational opportunities, and our grandfathers were both part of the Bracero program. For that reason, I feel a lot of pride seeing her as a faculty member at UCI because there are not many Latina professors, especially those coming from our socio-economic background.  

Dr. Flores has always affirmed me, expressed confidence in me, and treated me as a highly capable person and that has meant a great deal to me. I see her micro-affirmations in her every-day small interactions. For example, one day I was sharing some ideas I had regarding a paper we were working on and I was so surprised to see her taking notes on what I was saying, because not many professors had done that before. Further, she has invested in me and provided me with constructive feedback on all of the fellowship application materials that I have ever been awarded, including the Ford Predoctoral Fellowship, the NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, and UC-HSI DDI President’s Pre-Professoriate Fellowship. She has written me countless letters of recommendation which have granted me access to valuable academic and professional opportunities and funding sources. I have also grown tremendously as a writer and learned so much about writing while co-authoring papers with Dr. Flores because she is such a strong, intentional, and compelling writer.

Lastly, Dr. Flores has always uplifted me when I have struggled in academia and guided me through the bureaucracies of higher education. I have faced many hurdles in academia and have thought more than once that I would not get a Ph.D. Yet, Dr. Flores’ confidence in me has been unwavering. For example, when I was going through a challenging time and felt that I would not be able to persevere, she connected me with several people who had faced similar struggles and who were able to commiserate with me and provide their experiential insights. She has also advocated for me more than once and helped mitigate some of the institutional hurdles I was experiencing. Equally important, she has encouraged me to advocate for myself and informed and guided me on the ways that I could do so.

Dr. Irene Vega has also supported me in meaningful ways as a sociology Ph.D. candidate. She is the co-chair on my dissertation committee and has helped me frame my contributions, refine my methods, and start thinking about my scholarly identity. She has also provided ongoing feedback on my dissertation interview protocols. Her feedback has always been incredibly thoughtful, intentional, and constructive. Dr. Vega is also someone who reassured me that non-linear doctoral pathways can still be successful ones, and she is living proof of that. One of our conversations in particular allowed me to realize that no matter how overwhelming and catastrophic my situation felt at the moment, someday it would just be another bump in the road. That exchange with Dr. Vega has inspired me both personally and academically.

When do you plan to complete your Ph.D.? What are your plans thereafter?

I plan to graduate with my Ph.D. in the summer of 2025 and become a professor, where my research will center on improving the educational and social mobility pathways of underrepresented students.

What unique life experiences have guided your educational journey? Give us some background.

My parents both grew up in rural Zacatecas, Mexico, where they had very limited educational opportunities; in fact, both of my parents have third-grade level educations. Despite that, both of my parents played pivotal roles in fostering my love for learning and were my main motivation in pursuing higher education. My mother — third-grade level education and all — was my first and favorite teacher. She taught me to read and write in Spanish when I was four, as well as basic addition and subtraction. Those are some of my favorite childhood memories and the beginning of my love for learning. Since I was in elementary school, my dad used to remind my siblings and I that we needed to work hard and get good grades because we needed to qualify for academic scholarships, which is something that really motivated me to try my best in school. My dad is especially passionate about higher education and it is with great heaviness that he laments that he almost did not get the opportunity to learn how to read and write. A key driving force to my educational pursuits has been reflecting on how incredibly talented and resourceful my parents are and how far they would have gone if they would have had half as many opportunities as I have. I do this for Rafis and Nayo (my parents’ nicknames).

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