Marissa Vasquez

"Norma and David were tag-team counselors for a learning community called the Puente Project. The program’s culturally relevant design and curriculum promoted self-reflection, fostered critical thinking, and broadened the possibilities of continuing my education outside of San Diego."

Marissa Vasquez with her dog and mother

Tell us about your background and your life growing up.

I grew up less than 5 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Chula Vista, California. It wasn’t until I moved away for college that I learned that my backyard was the busiest international border in the world. Needless to say, I was raised in a multicultural, linguistically diverse, transborder community.

From elementary school to community college, I attended predominantly Latino schools taught primarily by White women. Despite this dissonance in my education, my family and community were my main source of inspiration and educators of cultural pride.

I’m the eldest of two daughters raised by Mexican American parents who were also born in San Diego. In 1964, my father was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam for two years. Coming home shell-shocked and with war-inflicted trauma, he has suffered a lifetime of PTSD, health conditions due to exposure to agent orange, and now dementia. Fortunately for all of us, my mom has been the glue keeping our family together. As the eldest of nine, my mom earned her master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and worked as a licensed clinical social worker for 27 years at UCSD Medical Center.

Being the eldest daughter of a college-educated Latina meant I was exposed to various forms of capitalsocial, cultural, navigationalthat allowed me to embrace my own identities. She confidently exposed me to spaces not intended for communities of color, but that also heightened my own awareness of racial inequities. I remember feeling intimidated by these spaces because I was noticeably different from the blonde haired, blue-eyed girls and their moms. Yet, my mom normalized our presence and walked confidently through rooms with me by her side. These moments were symbolic, as they planted unconscious seeds in my mind about what it meant to disrupt racial stereotypes and create opportunities for others to exist in spaces not designed for them.

What community college did you attend and why?

I attended my local community college, Southwestern College. While it was close to home, the real reason I chose to ignore my acceptance to San Diego State University directly after high school was because I was scared. I was intimidated by the idea of going to a big university where I wouldn’t know anyone. I feared being alone and without my friends, who were all going to community college. So while I may have been “ready” academically, I was still a very young, naïve teenager who had no idea what she was.

Who were some individuals at your community college who helped shape your success and how did they do it?

While my mom was a college graduate, 24 years separated our experiences and left me as lost as a first-generation college student. Although I knew college was important, I lacked specific guidance to navigate the education system on my own. Thankfully, I found the support I needed from Norma Cazares and David Ramirez. Norma and David were tag-team counselors for a learning community called the Puente Project. The program’s culturally relevant design and curriculum promoted self-reflection, fostered critical thinking, and broadened the possibilities of continuing my education outside of San Diego. We visited various universities throughout California, which gave me the confidence to visualize myself in those spaces.

The day I received my acceptance to UC Berkeley was both exciting and overwhelming. The idea of moving 500 miles away to a university that was known for its liberalism was not what my parents had in mind when they encouraged me to apply to college. I remember crying in David and Norma’s office when I told them about my parents’ disapproval. After consoling me they each said, “Don’t worry, mija, I’ll talk to them.” Although I don’t know what exactly they told them, the fact that they went out of their way to speak with my parents about this opportunity is something that no other educator had ever done for me. At that moment, Norma and David became more than my mentors and my academic advisorsthey became my advocate. Their guidance helped me get to UC Berkeley and kept me from dropping out in my first semester; they kept me focused when I was turned down by employers and kept me hungry for knowledge as I pursued my master’s degree and doctorate. It’s been 23 years since I first enrolled in community college, but I still remain in close contact with both of them.

How has attending a community college influenced your outlook on education and life?

I believe that everything happens for a reason. Had I enrolled at SDSU instead of community college, I would have never met my mentors/counselors who exposed me to possibilities beyond my hometown. And had I not had that exposure, I would have never dreamed of applying to the No. 1 English department in the country. And had I not attended UC Berkeley, I would have never become the first in my family’s generation to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and a doctoral degree. So ultimately, I owe all of my academic success to community college.

How did your learning and overall experiences at a community college lead to your further course of study and current career?

I became a community college scholar because I wanted to better understand our broken system. I wanted to better understand how students like me, as well as students with different lived experiences and identities, experienced college settings. I wanted to better understand how to make community colleges more inclusive and supportive.

As a doctoral student, I worked closely with my mentors Dr. J. Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III, who introduced me to Dr. Shaun Harper’s Anti-deficit Achievement Framework while they were developing a new survey instrument to measure college student engagement. Here’s what the conversation sounded like:

Luke: Right now, there’s one national survey that most community colleges use to measure student engagement. But the way it’s doing so is from a deficit lens. Think about it. When you pick up an article about Black or Latino students regarding their level of engagement, it’s usually framed as, “Black and Latino men are less likely than their White male peers to attend office hours.” So then we as scholars perpetuate this deficit narrative about Black and Latino men as being less engaged than their White peers.

Me: So how do we shift the narrative?

Frank: We need to start asking the right questions. We need our own survey instrument that captures more race-conscious perspectives of students of color.

Luke: Right! So check this out! The questions on that survey ask students, “How often do you visit your professor during office hours?” But what we should really be asking is “How welcomed do you feel to visit your professor during office hours?”

In the moment, the biggest lightbulb went off in my mind. But of course! Why haven’t we been asking this all along? Literature tells us that the more students feel validated (Rendón) and a sense of belonging (Hurtado & Carter), the more likely they are to engage with their peers and faculty. Since then, I’ve focused my scholarship on better understanding community college and transfer students’ experiences from an anti-deficit lens.

Tell us something fun about yourself.

Ha! I always have a hard time answering this question, but I’ve been told that I’m “always down for whatever!”