Fellowship makes new voices heard on injustice

An eight-week summer program, the ASCENSO Hispanic Fellowship familiarizes students with county government functions and leverages their experiences to understand social issues.


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The 2022 ASCENSO fellows, from left to right: Jorge Macias, Vanessa Magaña, Vanessa Olvera Buenrostro, Humberto Jimenez.

Photo: Obinna Anyanwu

Over the summer of 2022, four California Lutheran University students learned or relearned the same lesson. They discovered that we need their voices in civic life.

The students were part of a new program — ASCENSO Hispanic Fellowship. For eight weeks before their senior year, they shadowed Ventura County government employees, spending 20 hours a week on projects and in conversations about equity for communities of color. They conducted their research under these off-campus mentors, who included members of the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Funding from the Amgen Foundation pays for each fellow’s $5,000 stipend.

What she has to offer

Vanessa Olvera Buenrostro, an environmental science major from Oxnard, brought years of local environmental-justice activism to the fellowship program. At first, she said, seeing all the men in suits made her anxious about whether she belonged in the government center’s halls.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not qualified.’ But that’s the thing about imposter syndrome,” she said. “You have to experience that sort of discomfort.”

Despite challenges, she gained confidence and leadership skills.

“Attending those public-service meetings, attending those public-health meetings, being there even if it’s via Zoom … has given me a broader perspective on where I’m from, what I represent, and what I can offer any organization or school,” she said.

Buenrostro is applying to graduate schools and plans to conduct research this winter in Ensenada, Mexico. The coastal Baja California city faces environmental issues not unlike Oxnard’s, she said, including concerns about air quality, water quality and access, and sound and light pollution.

Saying something about it

For Humberto Jimenez, a psychology major with an emphasis in criminal justice, the program offered an introduction to the field of public health and “how tobacco is a social issue within the Latino community.”

Partly because no one smoked in his own household, Jimenez was surprised by the depth of this problem and the targeting of communities of color, which he documents using publicly available data. Independent tobacco shops, he notes, are prevalent near schools and parks in neighborhoods such as La Colonia in Oxnard.

“The cities with the highest adult smokers are also the cities with the highest Hispanic population: Santa Paula, Oxnard, Port Hueneme,” he said.

“When I was a kid, I heard tobacco was bad for you, but I didn’t know the Latino community was targeted,” said Jimenez, who wants to join a local police force after graduation. “As a Latino, it’s important to me that somebody says something about it.”

Acknowledging a history of harm

Vanessa Magaña, an aspiring schoolteacher majoring in liberal studies, spent her internship researching Ventura County historical events that have harmed communities of color. She built a timeline highlighting 50 developments, such as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which met on a hill overlooking the east side of Santa Paula in the 1920s and 30s, and the adoption by Fillmore of English as the only language for city government business between 1985 and 1999.

Magaña applied a theoretical framework to her project that she had first encountered in an education course. As she explained, “community cultural wealth” takes various forms, including the “familial capital” that young people particularly rely on for encouragement, guidance or help with homework. Since parents and other relatives who are afraid or feel like second-class citizens don’t respond to their family’s needs as they would otherwise, injustices take more than one kind of toll.

“That’s what I thought about when researching these events, how all these events can alter a person’s sense of self,” she said.

Magaña, too, had to overcome the anxiety of imposter syndrome to complete the program. Once she did her final presentation, she felt “a sense of accomplishment but also a sense that my work didn’t have to finish here,” she said. “I can go on and be more involved in the county, even if it’s just attending the public health meetings.”

On pace for a Cal Lutheran teaching credential in 2024 and eventually a master’s degree, she hopes to teach older elementary schoolers in her native Santa Paula.

A step closer to an ambitious goal

Jorge Macias, a Ronald E. McNair Scholar bound for a PhD program in social psychology, has been able to fold his work for ASCENSO into a larger research proposal about how to reform juvenile detention and prevent delinquent behavior. A county official arranged for Macias to tour the juvenile correctional facility with an eye on issues he’d identified in his literature review.

“I had a whole bunch of prior research, so I had a great sense of direction,” he said.

Macias has been studying the application of trauma-informed approaches to juvenile corrections that maintain a focus on the causes behind behaviors. He advocates for changes in Medi-Cal state aid to get mental health services to more young people in need, especially in marginalized communities.

His own experience with the juvenile system in Idaho, after getting in trouble at age 14, informs and lends a sense of urgency to his ongoing research.

“Nobody was really looking at (my) issues,” he recalled. “They were just trying to make me stop acting out.”

Still, Macias is “extremely grateful” for the level of care that he eventually received in detention.

“It definitely changed my life, and it’s definitely the reason why I’m doing this work,” he said.

One of Macias’ many ambitions is to start a nonprofit that helps at-risk youths transition to adulthood. For now, he believes that he is most needed in academic research. His career aim is to head a program like the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

“I feel like people will need me, that my voice is missing,” he said.

Where marginalized communities are concerned, Macias said, academic research calls for “people who look like me, people with my kind of experience who can actually speak on the subject from a lived experience — not people who are studying these people,” he said. “I feel like it’s a whole different perspective.”

The initials of ASCENSO stand for Access, Success, Community, Equity, Network-building, Support and Opportunity. Applications to join the fellowship’s second cohort in 2023 open in February. Learn more at CalLutheran.edu/ascenso.