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Building a more inclusive space

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The first cohort of GPS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Fellows reflects on the past year’s advancements and projects for the future

Equity, diversity and inclusion are defining features of the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), UC San Diego and the entire University of California system. 

GPS has long celebrated the differences among us – in  race, nationality, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, abilities, experience and more. We believe these differences enhance our ability to achieve our core mission of public service, teaching and research. 

Last year, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, faculty, staff, administrators and students came together to develop new ways to enhance initiatives of equity, diversity and inclusion at GPS, including internal trainings for faculty and staff. The school launched weekly GPS Climate Hangouts, designed to provide a safe space to foster conversation about important issues in equity and diversity on campus. 

To encourage our students to share their own innovative ideas for how GPS can enhance diversity initiatives, the school also began seeking candidates for its first Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Fellows program. In November 2020, Dean Peter Cowhey announced the inaugural cohort: first-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) student Alejandra Guzman, first-year Master of International Affairs (MIA) student Jorge Mata Ochoa and second-year MIA student May Thach.  

These three students were selected from a competitive pool of applicants by the faculty and staff serving on the EDI Committee based on a number of criteria, including their demonstrated commitment to issues of equity and diversity.

Since being named as EDI Fellows, the students have been active in assisting faculty and staff in advancing strategic activities and initiatives, as well as developing individual projects to enhance EDI at GPS. 

“We are deeply grateful for the role this first cohort of EDI Fellows has played in advancing our goal of taking tangible action to continuously improve the access to, support within, and climate of GPS,” said Assistant Dean Meredith D’Angelo, who works closely on GPS’ EDI initiatives with Victor Shih, GPS professor and faculty equity adviser. “Their contributions to our community will both stand alone and serve as a foundation for future efforts.”

These projects are now close to culmination, and GPS News chatted with each of the fellows about their experiences over the past year, the projects on which they focused and their hopes for how these initiatives will carry GPS into a more equitable, diverse, inclusive future. 

Alejandra Guzman

Alejandra Guzman, inaugural EDI Fellow and MPP ’22 candidate. Before beginning the master’s program at GPS, she served as a park ranger at Yosemite National Park.

Alejandra Guzman, of Merced, California, is a first-generation American and first-generation college student. 

She was motivated to apply to be an EDI Fellow because she wanted to help GPS recruit students from more diverse backgrounds. EDI work empowers others and “creates a sense of acceptance and belonging to individuals of different cultures, physical abilities and conditions,” she said.

“Higher education is not a very diverse place,” Guzman said. “I often find myself struggling with impostor syndrome and meeting people I can relate to. My mom was a single parent, and her highest education level was second grade. I know I am not alone, and there are other students like me.” 

In order to help recruit a more diverse student body, Guzman’s project focused on reaching out to all the universities and community colleges in San Diego County to conduct two outreach presentations – one at the end of the spring quarter and one in the fall to help students with the application process, which can seem overwhelming for many. 

Guzman also developed a mini project where she worked with her adviser to ensure several bathrooms in GPS buildings contained menstrual products at all times – a critical part of reproductive health that is often overlooked. 

“This is something very common that impacts half of our student population,” she said. 

Guzman acknowledged that while her project helps with short-term outreach, a longer term solution is needed. 

“Something to take into account is that doing these presentations for one year will likely not be a complete solution to diversify GPS applicants,” she said. “This has to be a reoccurring event and might even have to be recorded for future applicants.”

Before attending GPS, Guzman worked to decolonize a space often cited as being historically less welcoming to diverse populations: national parks. 

“I worked in Yosemite National Park as a park ranger/environmental educator,” she said. “There is a strong movement to make green spaces and outdoor education more diverse. A lot of my work focused on working with diverse students of all ages and introducing them to national parks.”

Guzman said she was honored to have expanded her EDI experience in higher education. 

“Since the population of people with graduate degrees is not very diverse, I am happy to contribute to any work to help its diversity,” she said. “As one of the first EDI Fellows, it was an honor to participate and get to work with the other fellows. I think offering these opportunities empowers students, and helps create a stronger sense of awareness in EDI topics.”

Jorge Mata Ochoa

Jorge Mata Ochoa, inaugural EDI Fellow and MIA ’22 candidate

Jorge Mata Ochoa, of Yuma, Arizona, said that as a first-generation Latinx college student, he has been passionate about EDI since his time as an undergraduate. 

“Once I read the description about the fellow’s program, I knew I wanted to try and help the community out as much as I could,” Mata Ochoa said. “I felt proud of myself once I got the news. I even had my classmates and peers congratulate me over text messages. I was super happy that I would be able to represent my community and hopefully spread the message of EDI at GPS.”

Mata Ochoa’s project was conducted through the GPS admissions team, where he worked to create Zoom chats between current and prospective or incoming students, connecting people from a variety of backgrounds to help them feel welcome at GPS before they ever set foot on campus. 

“These chats created a unique experience many incoming students did not have, where they were able to have conversations with current students about GPS and other non-school related topics,” Mata Ochoa said. “Additionally, I was able to attend a capitol forum for the Hispanic Association for College and Universities (HACU) where I could see Latinos in a position of power talk about the importance of higher education and minority-serving institutions.”

Mata Ochoa said he learned a great deal from both the project and the conference. 

“With the project, I learned more about event planning and coordination along with speaking skills,” he said. “The capitol forum helped me learn how to talk to congressmen and policymakers about higher education.”

“The EDI Fellows program is a great initiative and one that should be expanded upon here at GPS,” he added.

May Thach

May Thach, inaugural EDI Fellow and MIA ’21 candidate

May Thach, of St. Petersburg, Florida, said she applied to become an EDI Fellow because she believes EDI should be at the forefront of all interactions and programming, on both an individual and institutional level. 

“I wanted to be a part of the fellows program to push for initiatives I thought would be great at GPS,” Thach said. 

Thach said she was “very happy and excited” when she found out she had been named as a fellow. 

“I knew that there were great peers who were applying as well, and I am honored to be a part of the inaugural cohort,” she said. 

Thach’s project focused on revamping the mentor-mentee program, adding more inclusive questions to foster better matching of mentors and mentees.

“This allowed for the pair to be matched based on their diverse experiences, such as being part of underrepresented groups,” Thach said. “I am almost finished with the matching form, and I’ve completed the resource timelines for mentors to help them be better mentors.”

Thach said having a good mentor, one who comes from a similar background as the mentee, is a critical part of academic success in a diverse student body. 

“To know someone has gone through a similar experience and can support you in your journey is so crucial to our graduate experience,” Thach said. 

Thach said her experience as an EDI Fellow helped her develop a number of new insights and strategies that she will carry into her career. 

“I’ve learned that it is important to listen first, always. Everyone has different experiences and perspectives, and it is crucial to understand their perspective and see how we can achieve our goals together,” Thach said. “EDI work is not shallow work. It takes time and intentional planning to make it happen and endure.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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