Veronica Fematt is a passionate and dedicated graduate student who is actively involved in creating a better college and graduate school experience for Latino students. Veronica is in her fourth year in the Educational Leadership and Organizations Ph.D. program in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. She received her B.A. in Sociology from UCLA and has an A.A. from Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier.
In this student spotlight article, Veronica shares how her educational and life experiences shaped her research and motivated her to pursue a Ph.D.
Tell us about yourself.
My parents are both from Mexico. After they were married, they immigrated to Long Beach, California, which is where my three sisters and I were born. I am the second eldest in my family. I lived in Long Beach until I was in the second grade, when we moved to Monterey Park, California. My father educated himself and worked his way from a machine shop sweeper to a real estate broker and eventually opened his own business. I would say we were a perfect representation of the American Dream realized – at least up until my parents got divorced and my father left. The divorce coincided with an economic recession, so my parents filed for bankruptcy and we lost everything. I was starting high school at the time.
My mother became a displaced homemaker, spoke limited English, and was left with four daughters to care for on her own. Consequently, we were forced to apply for government assistance and moved into a small apartment in East Los Angeles. My parents’ divorce and the quick loss of economic security took an emotional toll on me and I began acting out. I started skipping school and was eventually placed in a continuation high school. I chose to enroll in home studies, where my schoolwork consisted of photocopied pages of a coloring book for “Art” and a how-to-parenting manual for “Health.” My requests for more challenging coursework were ignored. It became clear to me that I was expected to be nothing more than another statistic.
It was during this time that I began to question the role of education in empowering or, in my case, disempowering students. I felt betrayed by my school and the education system in general. I questioned whether my experience was typical for low-income students of color. I also began to reflect on my mother’s experience and realized that her lack of a formal education had put her at a real disadvantage when my father left. It was the culmination of these experiences that propelled me to change my life’s direction and pursue a postsecondary education.
Immediately following my high school graduation, I enrolled at Rio Hondo Community College. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea where my path would lead. All I knew was that I didn’t want anyone else to be subjected to the same type of demeaning educational experience I had received. The direction I needed to pursue became clear when I took my first sociology course. It was then that I came to understand my educational experience within the context of educational inequity. Soon after, I declared sociology as my major and transferred to UCLA.
Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.
My research is on the community college-to-transfer pathway. I am currently working on two research projects. My first project, the Transfer Student Transition Survey (TSTS), is a mixed methods study on the post-transfer experience of community college transfer students at UCSB. As a former transfer student, I know the transition to a 4-year research university can be challenging. When I started my graduate career I was pleased to find out that UCSB offered a transfer student success course, ED 118: The Research University and the Transfer Student Experience, which helps facilitate the transition of first-year transfer students. I jumped at the opportunity to collect data, so every year I survey and interview a new transfer student cohort. My study compares the post-transfer experience of course participants to non-participants.
My second project, the Latino Male Academic Narrative Study (LMANS), is an interview study. I am interviewing Latino males who transferred from a community college to UCSB. The purpose of this study is to identify the familial, peer, motivational, and structural factors, which enabled these students to successfully transfer to a top-ranking institution. In other words, I am looking at the academic trajectory of Latinos through a cultural wealth perspective. I was motivated to do this study when I learned that much of the literature on Latino males is framed from a cultural deficit perspective (i.e., high school dropouts, school-to-prison pipeline). As a Mexican-American graduate researcher, I wanted to provide an avenue for these students to share their success stories.
Describe your activities and involvements at UCSB. How have these activities and involvements helped you as a student or helped shape your future career?
I am involved in several projects and groups here at UCSB. I work closely with the Associate Dean of Students, Dr. Don Lubach, providing feedback on the transfer student success course. I am a member of the Higher Education Research Group (HERG), which is composed of several graduate students from the department of Education. As a group, we share intersecting research interests on issues relating to community colleges and the transfer pathway.
I am also one of the founding members of the Higher Education Action and Research Consortium (HEARC), which is a graduate student-led organization. The purpose of our group is to provide an inter-departmental platform for the discussion of trends and policy implications impacting postsecondary education. HEARC invites faculty guest speakers to share their research interests and organizes professional development workshops for graduate students.
Additionally, I am employed as a graduate student program evaluator through a collaborative partnership between UCSB’s Office of Education Partnerships (OEP) and Oxnard College. I evaluate STEM programs for Oxnard College, which aim to increase the number of Latino students who pursue STEM degrees/careers.
There is no doubt these activities have enriched my graduate student experience. I have acquired valuable skills I would not have otherwise been able to cultivate had I not invested myself into these opportunities. Through these collaborative efforts, I have formed strong relationships with people who have similar research interests and goals. I believe my experience at UCSB has made me a strong candidate for a future career in academia.
What has graduate student life been like for you?
I love my graduate student experience. I was fortunate to enter graduate school with a great cohort, from which I have established strong friendships. I am working on issues that I am passionate about and I have an advisor, Dr. Gerber, who is nothing but supportive and provides me with great guidance.
What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?
My mother has been a great source of inspiration. She has persevered through so much adversity. She was able to take her family off government assistance, become a real estate agent, and support her family all on her own. Knowing the challenges she has overcome makes it impossible for me to call anything difficult.
Another source of motivation has been my own experience navigating through the education system, which has shaped my research interests. I would not be here today had I not been able to transfer from a community college. Community colleges are second-chance institutions, especially for low-income students of color. Getting more students through the community college-to-transfer pathway and bringing diversity to 4-year institutions drives my research.
Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.
I am most proud of being accepted to UCLA. At the time I applied, all I knew about UCLA was that it was a good school. I was completely oblivious to UCLA’s national standing. So, as a first-generation college student who graduated from a continuation school, getting accepted to a world-renowned institution was a huge accomplishment.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? (Or put another way, what is one thing most people don’t know about you?)
I enjoy watching X-Games, Monster Jam, and Motocross. Had I not entered academia, I think I would have made an excellent racecar driver.
What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?
I hope to be a professor at a research intensive (R1) university.
Do you have any advice for current grad students?
Make the most of your time as a graduate student. If you don’t have the support you need in your department or university, create it. If you want to work with a specific professor, reach out and make it happen. Take charge of your graduate experience.
Where can students find additional information about HEARC?