Volume X, Issue 1 | February 13, 2024

Living her Best (SMC) Life

Christina Marcial’s job title may be ‘administrative assistant’ but ‘champion’ is more apt. This first-gen SMC alum knows first-hand the power of a caring campus and is a force for positive change.

SMC In Focus


If you find yourself at Santa Monica College during a joyous, energy-filled event—VIP Welcome Day, for instance, when hundreds of new and continuing SMC students are given the welcome of their lives—you will likely run into Christina Marcial. She is in the heart of things, usually with a digital SLR camera slung around her neck, documenting special moments, making sure things run smoothly. Christina, an administrative assistant, is part of the Community and Academic Relations team, which helps organize numerous college/community events. Her creativity, drive, and personal commitment—says supervisor Dean Kiersten Elliott—enables Christina to be a positive force, helping SMC serve students better.

What’s more, Christina is “a true SMC success story”—someone who experienced firsthand the impact of higher education, and the power of a timely helping hand and a welcoming place. The story begins in a loud high school senior English class, where a student with a 1.57 GPA and no college acceptance letters is sittingwhen an outreach counselor from Santa Monica College named Stuart Ortiz walks in.

Prepared for That Moment

It was her last semester at University High School in West LA. Christina remembers that it was “like a high school scene from TV.” Students more intent on doing their own thing than quieting down while Christina was intent on what Stuart had to say—not knowing that someday, she’d be working alongside him. Not long after, a teacher in Christina’s government class told her students about the Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP) Scholars Program at UCLA—a program that helps first-generation, low-income or historically underrepresented students who are prospective community college students strengthen their chances of being admitted to UCLA. The deadline for applying to the program was a few days away; the presentation done, the teacher threw the flyer into the trash.

“I went and grabbed it,” Christina remembers. “I wanted to know what this program was about—it was a first-generation program!” Immigrants from Oaxaca, Christina’s parents both had a middle school education and no one from her family had yet attended college. Christina was also in her high school’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program and her AVID teacher—Ms. Lomeli, with whom Christina is still in touch—helped her get an application ready for the CCCP Scholars Program. Christina was accepted into the CCCP Scholars program as part of the SITE (Summer Intensive Transfer Experience) cohort.

The summer after graduating from high school, UCLA SITE helped Christina prepare for community college. She felt like she was “going straight to a university” and got the opportunity to experience life on UCLA’s campus while learning about tools and strategies that would help her succeed and transfer. The SMC connection continued to be reinforced. Sara Nieves-Lucas—now SMC Counseling department chair—dropped by to talk about how transformational Santa Monica College could be. “She said, if we ever needed help, we could find her at SMC.” Sara’s powerful mentorship, she noted, helped her succeed as a first-generation college student. “I would have not gotten through my first semester at my transfer school without her,” Christina said.

Like the UCLA SITE Peer Mentors had suggested, Christina enrolled at SMC and made sure she became a part of special programs like TRIO, Scholars, EOPS, and the Adelante Program. She started her journey at SMC with VIP Welcome Day, an event that she’d one day be deeply involved with—behind the scenes.

“I felt so welcome, and celebrated,” Christina said of that first VIP Welcome Day, “it felt like a clean slate. I could start afresh!” And what a slate it was—she went on to transfer to and graduate from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego as a political science major. While at PLNU, Christina completed a semester in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown University under the law, legislation, and politics track; she also interned at the Faith and Politics Institute.

“For a while, I thought I was missing out because I didn’t go straight to a four-year school,” Christina said. “But I was still able to experience that and much more, and SMC made that possible . . . I was a student prepared for that moment.”

Among those who prepared Christina for “that moment” was her TRIO counselor Leticia Montoya, who now has the pleasure of calling her a colleague. “I have known Christina now for over a decade and had the amazing pleasure of watching her growth from a student at SMC to the beginnings of her career as a working professional on-campus . . . I was impressed early on by the high level of enthusiasm and engagement she devotes to her endeavors.”

Opening Doors—for Herself, for Her Family

Growing up in West LA, Christina was keenly aware of UCLA as “like, the best.” And so to be a part of UCLA SITE, where she was assigned a peer mentor who knew exactly what it was like to be a first-generation student and was also Oaxacan, meant everything.

Christina says that being a first-generation student made her “super resourceful.” There were other advantages: “I became an advocate for myself,” Christina remembers. “And I didn’t take no for an answer.” Not having knowledge handed down to you meant “triple checking everything I was told.”

Of her four siblings, Christina was the first to graduate from college. But it was her older brother who was the trailblazer, and enrolled at a community college. All of them attended SMC, her sister transferred to CSUN, and her younger brother transferred to the same university Christina attended. “I was working at SMC while my younger brother was a student,” she says, “and being able to help and guide him was the most rewarding thing.”

Helping Build a Caring Campus

 All it takes to make a student feel welcome, to know they have what it takes to fulfill their goals is “just one interaction,” Christina says. This is why she is on SMC’s Caring Campus committee, a state-funded program created by the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC). Research shows that students who feel more connected to their college are more likely to persist from semester to semester, and complete their academic goals. A core group of roughly ten SMC classified professionals—non-teaching employees—work to help students feel more connected to SMC through being more visible, accessible and giving what they call “warm referrals” (sharing live information on a Microsoft Teams Chat so a student looking for a specific office or resource can be helped as immediately as possible), among other things.

“You have no idea what it took for a student to step onto campus, and ask questions,” Christina says. “Somewhere, someone may have told them they are not capable of accomplishing their academic goals. They may have been hearing this throughout their lives.” So the task of “welcoming them and encouraging them, to empower them” is one she takes seriously. “I thank Denise Sturgis, a Financial Aid Student Services Clerk, for doing just that for me when I was a student.”

Through the Caring Campus initiative, Christina passes on this urgency to fellow SMC colleagues. Through college events and redesigning how students experience SMC, this simple yet powerful message—“you matter”—is passed onto students.

Before she began working for Community and Academic Relations, Christina worked for various departments—her SMC career began seven years ago as a temp, in what was then known as the Bursar’s Office (activating student ID cards on VIP Welcome Day!)—and each job gave her “a sneak preview”. “Knowing how [SMC] works and being able to speak to resources we have has served me well,” Christina says.

When she found out that Kiersten Elliott, her new supervisor, had an active role in planning VIP Welcome Day, Christina says it was “a full circle moment.” In fact, as a new student, she’d loved VIP Welcome Day so much that the following years she brought friends to it. “I was an unofficial ambassador for VIP Day!”

What she loves most about her job, Christina says, is “being able to use my strength in service.”

Full Circle

So many of the events Christina helps organize at SMC and in the community hold special meaning. But a year after a leaked audio recording of LA City councilmembers making racist remarks about Oaxacans came to light in 2022, Christina helped the committee that organizes SMC’s Latinx/e Heritage Month activities to put on the college’s first Guelaguetza. The festival is celebrated in Oaxaca each year in July, and is a joyous representation of the richness of Oaxacan culture and heritage.

“I never imagined that something like that would happen at SMC,” Christina says. “I think it was the first Guelaguetza to happen at that scale, at a California community college.” A group of students came together two days before the event to learn a traditional dance, and through her Oaxacan network of friends and family, Christina was able to get papel picado—the traditional perforated paper flags—decorated in SMC’s “areas of interest” colors, made, and shipped from Oaxaca. SMC’s main campus quad looked extra special that week.

Is there anything else that she looks forward to achieving? “It sounds weird to say, but I feel pretty full,” Christina says. “I have had many full circle moments this year but if I can continue to give back to our students what was first given to me through staff like Stuart, Sara, Leticia, and Denise, surely my cup will continue to run over!” On a personal note, she is excited to take on the world of quilting with her new Bernina sewing machine.

Christina has a full life outside of SMC, too. Her husband, Sammy—who also took some classes at SMC with her—is a chef, and they have had many adventures together. (Including moving to Oaxaca and running an Airbnb rental together—Christina loved spending time with her family there and volunteered at a local library teaching English—before the COVID-19 pandemic upended things and they had to move back to the U.S. Sammy and Christina first met at Daniel Webster Middle School and will be celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary this year.

Leticia Montoya sums up what makes Christina, as she puts it, “a valuable asset to the campus community”: her genuine kindness, positivity, tireless energy, innovative thinking.

The evidence is everywhere.

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