Valeria Galbert was in her late twenties when she decided to return to Santa Monica College. She was tired of working minimum wage jobs as a food service employee at Subway, Cinnabon, and Target. If I only can get an Associate Degree, Valeria thought, I might at least become shift supervisor. . .
Fast forward just a couple years. Today, Valeria is a busy Environmental Studies and Philosophy major with a full-ride scholarship at Loyola Marymount University (LMU is her dream school; Valeria chose it over UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Columbia University). Summer 2018 was hectic for Valeria—even as she got ready to leave SMC for LMU, she spent 10 weeks as a research intern at NASA’s JPL Science Division in Pasadena, helping scientists map terrain units to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
SMC professors and a Nobel laureate at Loyola use words like "an inspiration," "dedicated and motivated, very intelligent" to describe Valeria. They believe that she can do anything she sets her mind to. As for Valeria, her plans for the near future include applying for a Ph.D. in Environment and Sustainability at UCLA or the Ph.D. in Urban Planning at USC. She wants to teach—perhaps in the "informal teaching" field she learned about while at JPL (happens outside the classroom), but the pull is towards a community college, like Santa Monica College . . . a place where she can help others like her who have no idea that a world of possibilities lies within them.
"Get Over It"
Valeria grew up in a low-income midtown Los Angeles neighborhood. "If you know anything about LA back then (in the 90s) . . . it was really crazy and dangerous," she says, adding that she became "part of the wrong crowd." It brought tragedy, violence, and loss into her life. As a teenager, Valeria witnessed the murder of a friend. It was the beginning of a downward spiral—in every sense of the term—into depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
"In our neighborhood," she remembers, "It’s just one of those things . . . [where it’s like] ‘people die every day, get over it.’" It was "kind of a stigma," Valeria says, "to feel depression or anxiety." A large, stylized tattoo on one arm reads: "RIP" with the name of her cousin. If she had to get a tattoo for every acquaintance from her youth who died young, Valeria says her body would be covered in tattoos. A large scar the shape of a slash on her other arm is from a knife wound (she was also the victim of assault).
Today, Valeria is worlds away from that world, literally and figuratively. She has been sober for nine years—something she is "very, very proud of." She has been through therapy and began trying to make sense of life. A turning point in Valeria’s life had a lot to do with Marcel, a young man she had known in high school, who grew up in the same lifestyle as Valeria, but who had left it and inspired her to start seeking a spiritual faith.
Because of all that she had experienced, Valeria was an atheist. "I felt like how could there be a God when all these bad things are allowed to happen." But things began to make sense to Valeria, and she decided to seek a higher power, and eventually became a Catholic. And she sought therapy. That’s when she decided to return to SMC (Valeria is the first in her family to attend college; her parents had made her attend SMC right after high school, but she did not do very well).
As for the young man who showed her a different path: Marcel has been Valeria’s husband for three years now.
The Road Upwards
The first two years at SMC, Valeria would attend classes, hardly talk to anyone, go home. Then one day she got a letter in the mail from the SMC chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) honor society. She almost trashed the letter—she had never heard of PTK and thought it was junk mail.
When she went to the PTK meeting—"just to see what it was about"—Valeria had no idea that her involvement with the society would be the catalyst for an undreamt-of future. At the meeting, she was so inspired by the energy and leadership of her fellow students that she hung back to talk to one of the leaders, Irving Angeles. He encouraged her to apply for commissioner. She did—and got it. Then he asked her to run a fundraising event.
"I was scared, but at this point, I was ‘jumping in’," says Valeria. So she said yes, and the event (at an iHop) was "actually really successful." When Irving transferred to UCLA, he recommended that she run for his position, Director of Fundraising. Again she hesitated.
"With all that I’d been through . . . in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Am I smart enough? Am I good enough?’" Valeria says, noting that most of the people from her old life were either still living the old life, were dead, or in prison. But she silenced the voice of self-doubt and ran for the position.
When she won, says Valeria, "that was the turning point." And when you’re in charge of things and working with other "very ambitious and eager students, how can you not get inspired by that?"
No Stopping Her
Aline Baumgartner, who supervised Valeria in her student job at the Business Tutoring Center, says that Valeria’s tenacity and determination deeply impressed her. Valeria often told Aline that the most important thing for her was to give back to SMC—and this was visible in how she helped students and tutors at the center. And Valeria would give back: as a President’s Ambassador, as an Associated Students Commissioner, PTK Director of Fundraising, and as a volunteer student leader in Sustainable Works/Center for Environmental and Urban Studies (CEUS) on campus.
"However," Aline points out, "that was not enough for Valeria." After she began working at CEUS—on the recommendation of a friend, Rebecca Nee, who transferred to UCLA—Valeria visited the SMC Career Services Center and everything, she says, "just all connected." She switched majors to geography, a field that would allow her to parlay her love for nature into an academic focus and, possibly, a future vocation.
Valeria, notes SMC Geography/GIS Professor Dr. Jing Liu, is "the FIRST student from all my GIS (Geographic Information System) students to get an internship at JPL." (The upper caps Dr. Liu’s own). Jing notes that the JPL internship was "prestigious and therefore very competitive . . . Valeria was probably competing with many students from four-year institutions."
"Once she sets up a goal," says Jing, "She will achieve it no matter how difficult it is." As soon as she heard Jing Liu announce the JPL internship—which is offered through the Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program by NASA and funded by the SMC NASA Minority University Research & Education Program (MUREP)—Valeria knew she had to apply. The MUREP Program gave Valeria the information she needed—she had to wait for months to hear back (the lengthy application process includes nomination by SMC, review by NASA, and onwards to JPL who passes on students’ applications to scientists for the final decision).
This summer, at JPL’s Science Division in Pasadena, Valeria spent ten weeks helping a scientist map terrain units to Europa. She was able to use the GIS skills she had learned in Jing Liu’s class, for the Europa clipper that "we are sending out there." (JPL NASA’s Europa Clipper, which will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa to see whether it could host conditions favorable for life, is set for a launch sometime in the 2020s).
Valeria’s pride in the work she did at JPL is palpable—she talks with animation about the possibility of microbial life—"still . . . life outside the earth"—under Europa’s icy crust.
But the JPL research internship was just one of several life-shaping experiences Valeria got to have at universities while enrolled at SMC. She also did a one-week residency at UCLA through the UCLA Community College Center for Partnerships; a one-year CC2PhD (Community College to PhD) internship at UCLA, a program that seeks to address the underrepresentation of community college alumni in PhD programs (Valeria describes this as "basically taking another course load . . . it was very, very intense!"); and—this one would prove especially crucial—the ten-day residency-based Undergraduate Research Scholars Academy or "URSA"—at Loyola Marymount University. She got to spend ten days on LMU’s campus, and work with an LMU faculty member on a research project.
This advantage of experiencing dorm life and campus culture meant that Valeria was able to figure out what it felt like to be on a public university campus versus a smaller private one. She felt that a smaller school would be right for her—for now. The CC2PhD program had solidified Valeria’s decision to apply for a Ph.D. directly after LMU, and she’s leaning heavily towards UCLA.
When the acceptance letters came pouring in—from UCLA, UC Berkeley, Columbia University, and LMU (with full-ride scholarships from the two UCs)—Valeria found that people expected her to pick the Ivy League Columbia.
"At this point," remembers Valeria. "I had already committed to LMU—and I was so, so invested, I even bought their sweaters!" Turns out the sweaters were not got in vain—because she soon got word from LMU that she would receive several scholarships, for being part of various special programs and societies on campus (the First to Go Scholars Program, a Student Ambassador, and also the McNair Scholars Program): the total would amount to, basically, a full-ride scholarship.
Then there was another very important connection at LMU that helped cement Valeria’s decision.
A Nobel Laureate Sees Himself
Dr. Jeremy Pal was a part of a team of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
Growing up as a teenager in Venice, Calif., Jeremy never envisioned becoming a top scientist, much less winning what is arguably the most prestigious award in the world. Today, he oversees LMU’s McNair Scholars Program—a federally funded TRIO program which seeks to prepare first-generation or underrepresented undergraduate students for doctoral studies. Deirdre Weaver—who oversees alumni relations at SMC—connected Valeria with Jeremy.
"I saw myself in her," says Jeremy, recounting that as a teenager he did not do so well in school, and that it was Santa Monica College (and a human ecology class in particular) that inspired in him a lifelong passion for the environment (illustrious career as a scientist and professor included). When he met Valeria, Jeremy told her about his path—from Santa Monica College to LMU, and onwards to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—not knowing that his story would help her "feel good" about her decision to attend LMU.
"I actually didn’t try to convince her to come here," he says, "I just wanted to share my experiences . . . I needed the nurturing [at LMU] that I probably wouldn’t have gotten at some of the ‘top’ schools. The professors at LMU are really here for the students than for research." Dr. Pal encouraged Valeria to apply for the prestigious McNair Scholars program. The rest, as they say, is history.
On Valeria, Jeremy Pal observes: "She has all the qualities that will make her a very successful individual one day. She has had such major obstacles . . . and [now] nothing really gets in her way."
You’re Not Stuck
As she contemplates her past and future, Valeria is overcome with emotion when she talks about the three people at SMC who forever changed her life. Math professor John Quevedo who "saw something in her" long before she did. He always made himself available during office hours, spending time to help her understand course material. When the time came, he wrote letters of recommendation.
Dr. Jing Liu, says Valeria, really cares about her students . . . it is not just about teaching a class. She went "above and beyond", helping Valeria with advice on college and career, among many other things. The same for her former boss Aline Baumgartner: "You can go to her with anything you need help with . . . resumes, professionalism, or an email," says Valeria.
It is because of these three and the difference they made in her life that Valeria wants to return to teach in a community college. The reason is simple: she wants to someday help others like her. While Valeria does not keep in touch with those from her old life—part of the transformation required ridding herself of those who would not uplift her in her new path—she wants them to know something really important.
"I did it—they can do it too," she says, adding, "for those of us who come from those backgrounds, it is easy to feel stuck . . . that there are no other options."
"But you’re not stuck," says Valeria. "You can get out." Aline Baumgartner agrees. For, she says, Valeria is a clear example of the expression Si Se Puede.
Yes, you can.
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