Rebecca Covarrubias

Assistant Professor, Social Psychology, UC Santa Cruz

My backstory

I grew up in a predominately low-income, Mexican neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona, as one of four children. My father, Jose Luis Covarrubias, is a retired elementary school bus driver and janitor and my mother, Rosario Covarrubias, is a homemaker. I attribute much of my school success to the early values that I learned at home — collaboration, hard work and humility.

What motivated me to go to college

Even though I excelled in a college preparatory International Baccalaureate (IB) program, I did not consider college as a viable option. I applied to only one university because a close friend was also applying and because it was close to home. After applying, I thought college would help me make sense of (and ultimately change) the inequities that I realized existed in my community.

What I would tell my freshman self

While it can difficult to leave your family, know that going to college can help you and your family in the long run. Share the journey with your family and your community. Work hard and know that there is no such thing as a perfect student. Failure does not mean that you have failed others or that you are not smart enough. Failure is an important part of learning and growing as a person.

How my background helped me

Because my family and I overcame many challenges together early on, once I was in college, I was able to put many things in perspective and to persist through difficult situations. In short, my background taught me resilience, persistence and perspective. I also think my background helped me to better work with and connect to others from diverse backgrounds.

The best thing about my college experience

I had many life-changing experiences in college. I had the opportunity to travel, to mentor, to conduct research, to meet incredible mentors and leaders, and to learn how we could improve our educational systems. College expanded life opportunities for me and my family, and introduced me to a career that I love. I now have the honor of working with students from backgrounds like my own.

“I equated asking for help as a sign of weakness. I’ve learned that everyone asks for help in some form or another.”

Erika Walker

Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley

My backstory

I grew up as an army brat, changing schools every year until sophomore year. My parents divorced when I was a toddler, so my normal was going back and forth between them. Whether I was with my non-native English speaking mother or one of seven in a household with my remarried father, I grew up in low socioeconomic households. In high school, my mother moved from California back to the East Coast. I was tired of being the new girl in school, and asked to stay behind. I lived with my aunt in San Francisco and had a job to take care of personal expenses, until I graduated and went to Cal (B.S., American Studies, ’96).

What motivated me to go to college

When I was a little girl, I knew that education was my ticket out of the cycle of poverty. I still believe it’s a key factor as a vehicle toward social mobility.

What I would tell my freshman self

Cal can be overwhelming. Make the space smaller by finding communities of people who share your interests. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No, seriously. People told me to go to office hours or see an advisor and I was extremely reluctant or didn’t go until it was too late. I equated asking for help as a sign of weakness or confirmation that I didn’t belong. Everyone asks for help in some form or another. Support is all around you at Cal. Talk to people. Expand your views. Take advantage of these learning opportunities because you’ve earned them!

How my background helped me

I experienced cultural and demographic diversity growing up in the military which expanded my worldview in ways that often differed from my peers. Also, as a biracial woman, my perspective was seen through multiple lenses. I believe these experiences allowed me to be more empathetic, able to facilitate difficult conversations, and ultimately led me toward this work in higher education.

The best thing about my college experience

Friendships. I can’t even describe how much fun I had. My closest friends and extended family are from those lifelong relationships that I developed in college. Navigating college and self-discovery during those formative years was a rite of passage for us. We established strong bonds and because of those key people, I can look back on my undergraduate experience with fondness and appreciation.

Michael W. Peterson, M.D.

UCSF Fresno Chief of Medicine

My backstory

I grew up in North Dakota and western Nebraska, the oldest child of five. My maternal grandfather ran his own printing shop and my paternal grandfather was a store keeper and county sheriff for a period of time. My parents were products of the Depression and while both of them did attend some college, family commitments prevented them from finishing. Along with me, three of my siblings also went on to attain advanced or professional degrees.

What motivated me to go to college

There was never a time when I questioned that my goal was to go to college — and eventually medical school. My parents were supportive but couldn’t really assist me financially. They instilled in me the need to be as self-sufficient as I could be and plan for the future. They never questioned my goals and never doubted for one minute that I could accomplish my ultimate dream.

What I would tell my freshman self

Enjoy the learning for the pure pleasure of learning. It is too easy to get caught up in grade points, class ranks, etc., because of the competition. However, when you allow that to happen you miss the opportunity to fully appreciate the other rewards of expanding your experiences.

How my background helped me

I think two things were instrumental: first, my parents never doubted me and always supported my dream. Second, through their own hard work, they set an example. We certainly had everything that we needed growing up, but not to the degree I would see in some of my friends. My parents were always the ones to point out that hard work and personal discipline is what will get you to your goals.

The best thing about my college experience

There is no question that college allowed me to get to know a much more diverse group of people and to better understand issues in the world. It provided me the confidence that I could, in fact, succeed in life. It was a critically important experience in my development.

“Growing up, it was ingrained in me that education was the only way to move forward.”

Jeanette B. Ruiz

Lecturer, Senate Faculty, Communication, UC Davis

My backstory

I grew up in a small farming community near UC Davis. As the first-born of two immigrant farm workers from Mexico, navigating the K-12 school system was challenging, at best. There were a few teachers who were supportive but had it not been for the UOP program from UC Davis, I may not have made it to college (B.A., Rhetoric and Communication, UC Davis ’97; Ph.D., Communication, UC Davis ’15).

What motivated me to go to college

Both of my parents yearned for an education — they didn’t have the option as kids. They were forced to work at a young age to help support their families. However, I watched them both work full days in the fields and then come home to take night courses in English. Eventually, my father earned his GED and my mother completed her high school diploma. Growing up, it was ingrained in me that education was the only way to move forward. I wanted more for myself and I wanted my parents’ sacrifices to have been worth it.

What I would tell my freshman self

That it’s OK to not know and important to ask. That getting through requires just as much strategy as smarts. That it’s OK to make friends and have fun!

How my background helped me

I came in with a drive and determination that other students lacked. I also knew that it was up to me, no one owed me anything.

The best thing about my college experience

I wish I could tell you that I made a lot of friends and was a part of many organizations and clubs. Unfortunately, I was so focused on the end game that I really missed out on the journey. BUT college taught me that learning should be a life’s pursuit. More importantly, college opened the world to me. I had grown up in a bubble where you had to be the same to survive. College gave me the freedom to find and be myself.

“If you love and care about what you are studying, you will be much better poised to succeed.”

Melvin H. Green

Professor and Professor Emeritas, Biology, UC San Diego

My backstory

My father and mother moved during World War I from Poland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the ages of 13 and 2, respectively. My father learned to read and write in the third grade, then went to work in a steel mill to help support his family. My mother graduated high school, then took a job as a secretary until she married at age 21. My two sisters were born shortly after the end of World War II and are 8 and 10 years younger than I. With Dad working long hours in his inherited junk yard, I had a great deal of responsibility in their upbringing.

What motivated me to go to college

There was never any question about my going to college. Getting good grades was expected throughout school, but I never received any advice until becoming a graduate student. Even then it was minimal. Seeing how hard my father worked was probably the main source of motivation to get a college education.

What I would tell my freshman self

It can take courage to confront your parents’ fears and follow your own passion. But if you love and care about what you are studying, you will be much better poised to succeed. Trust your inner feelings. When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis, my advisor asked me what my plans were. I told him I would probably try to find a teaching position in a small college. He told me that one could always go back to teaching, but not back to research. I took his advice, and that led to my wonderful career as both a researcher and teacher at UC San Diego.

How my background helped me

I learned the importance of hard work, patience and perseverance from my early years and a multitude of paid jobs starting from the age of seven, that ranged from gardening to delivering papers, loading trucks in the stock yards at 5 a.m., plumbing, chopping brush with a machete on a surveying crew, and tutoring. Playing the violin from grades seven through 12 in the school orchestra helped develop my artistic side. Dad’s violin lessons from a street musician in Poland were responsible for this activity. My mother always insisted that I have a part-time job.

The best thing about my college experience

I had the courage to switch from an engineering major to chemistry against my mother’s wishes. I feel this led me to much more opportunity to utilize my creative nature.