The Chingona Chronicles

by Alma Zaragoza-Petty

Alma and her family at their annual end-of-the-year photoshoot

I often hesitate to share my college story because I never want to feel that I am pimping out my struggle or vying for pity. But the reality is, my college story was more about figuring out how to pay for it and how to pay it forward than esoteric goals of finding myself. The practicalities of college access, retention and completion can feel mundane and uninspiring but I share it in hopes that others with similar goals or predicaments can find hope in that you can truly be the change you want to see in the world.

Here it goes…

Due to the financial instability growing up, I was raised by my grandparents in Mexico until the age of seven when my mother was finally able to afford to bring me back to the States. My mother wired US dollars to Mexican pesos because that is what she had to do to stretch her minimum wage job income. Upon my return to the US, I grew up in a single-parent household on food assistance. I attended a total of seven different schools during my K-12 schooling experience as a result of the economic instability in my home, which forced us to relocate often to different family members’ homes and southeast LA cities.

By the time I was fifteen, my mother remarried and my stepfather’s additional income finally provided a more secure financial situation at home. My parents were able to afford for my younger siblings’ return from Mexico, and although this also meant more responsibilities for me as the eldest, I was excited to meet my siblings after years of growing up separately. Both my parents worked for minimum wage in the garment industry in downtown Los Angeles and their income could not cover for childcare expenses, so I cared for my younger brother and sister after school and during school breaks throughout high school. This responsibility prohibited me from joining clubs, sports or summer enrichment programs which would have prepared me for college in high school. Even so, we avoided living in subsidized housing, which was my family’s main objective during that time. We had seen way too many relatives fall victim to the violence and extreme conditions in Nickerson Gardens, the nearby projects, so we felt privileged to be able to avoid it.

Despite these challenges, I maintained a high GPA throughout high school and graduated with honors. I felt the need to enlist in the Army post high school to financially assist my parents and pay for my own studies through the GI Bill. While applying for the Army, I discovered I was eligible for financial assistance for community college. Therefore, I decided to start my postsecondary education at a community college were I received the Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver for enrollment and Pell and Cal grants which helped pay for tuition and fees. Additionally, I qualified for EAOP’s book and public transportation vouchers. Within two years, I had completed an honors curriculum and the UC transfer requirements. UCLA’s financial package, which included a full scholarship based on merit and need, was the deciding factor in my decision to enroll there, despite being accepted to UC Berkeley, my top choice. Unfortunately, not having a clear financial plan for interstate transportation to/from North California felt extremely prohibitive and a burden to have.

Alma speaking to CNN Español about the critical support ScholarMatch provides for first-generation college students

I began my Masters program three years later at CSU Northridge as a single mother of a month-old girl. However, with my drive and determination, I was also able to secure university-based scholarships and childcare grants to continue my studies. Most recently, without the financial awards I procured, I would not have been able to complete my doctoral studies in Educational Policy and Social Context at UC Irvine. As a doctoral student, my research focused on exploring higher educational access and persistence for low-income first-generation students. I used rich longitudinal datasets of 121 Latino immigrant families in the U.S. to examine the mathematics trajectories of Latinas. Past traditional research has shown that mathematics predicts college enrollment. Through my research however, I found that despite low math trajectories, a significant portion of Latinas go on to college. While some small-scale ethnographies have pointed to evidence that, for Latinas, relationships with teachers become pivotal factors in determining their educational success, this relationship has not been examined longitudinally or with a prospective sample.

I examined the experiences of this group of Latinas and co-authored a manuscript with one of my mentors, Dr. Maria Estela Zarate (CSU Fullerton) that extended an existing framework to understand how Latina students benefit from positive relationships with school personnel and thus defy mainstream conceptualizations of predictive factors of success. That manuscript also informed my dissertation work which investigated how market-based school reform incentivizes schools to invest in the academic preparation and well being of students. These imperatives, often articulated in terms of safety and the college preparation of students, are seen as issues traditional public schools have been unable to address adequately. In turn, alternative programs and schools of choice are positioned as viable solutions.

Alma participating in a project with the #InsideOutProject, a global art platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into public works of art

My analyses asked to what extent the case of market-based school reform schooling counters deficit paradigms so often associated with the education of low-income youth of color and, in turn, I developed a proactive versus reactive institutional framework to critique the fact that communities and schools are often seen as the problem rather than people to work with toward the advancement of safety and college-readiness for all. Through my research, I centered the educational experiences of diverse students from low-income backgrounds and underserved communities and proposed ways to imagine new possibilities.

My educational and professional goals were not always a clear goal for me due to the blinding realities of having to hustle on the go in college.

As a scholar who examined underrepresented first-generation low-income students in school settings, I am well aware of the statistics stacked against my own success. Both my mother and stepfather completed only an elementary education in Mexico but always aspired to more educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Despite their low educational attainment, they always worked hard to provide the necessities and have inspired and fully supported my pursuit of a higher education.

As a result, I have not only understood the benefit of a college education since a young age, my experiences have also shaped my career goals in my direct commitment to outreach and research that fosters equity and access of higher education. Due to my personal experiences, I have a strong and ongoing commitment to giving back to communities of color and enhancing persistence in higher education.

I guess you can say that although I struggle with the exploitative nature of having to swap college stories, due to the change in my own social positionality over time, I have also reclaimed my story as one of subverting a system never meant for people like me. And now, I find joy in using it for the next generation of future leaders who also live in the duality of working toward a degree in an institution that they are simultaneously trying to subvert.

Dr. Zaragoza-Petty is a native Californian who was also raised in Acapulco, Mexico. She has worked with students for almost 20 years in various capacities and settings. She started as an enrollment officer at East Los Angeles College, where she began her studies. While at UCLA she tutored and advised students in South Central and Huntington Park, where she grew up. As the first in her family to go to college, she became interested in learning about educational equity, and went on to complete a Masters in Counseling at CSU Northridge and a predoctoral internship at UC Berkeley. She lived in NorCal for three years while working for the EAOP and Cal-SOAP programs assisting students become college-ready. She returned to SoCal for her doctoral studies at UC Irvine where she graduated from in 2016. When she is not working with students, she enjoys spending time with her two daughters and partner, performing artist Propaganda.

#MyCollegeStory is a ScholarMatch original series highlighting the diverse and varied journeys to and through higher education. Check back each month for new stories!