Through her research, UCLA student Brenda Lara has coined the term epistemic unconfidence. The first generation philosophy and Chicano/Chicana studies student defines the term as such: that structures of power continuously deny Latinas intelligence, leading those women to believe they are incapable of producing “legitimate” knowledge.
It’s a topic she has observed in her family through her mother and across her community in Huntington Park. As she continues her education, Lara wants this research to make a difference back home and positively impact her hometown and beyond.
At a special roundtable luncheon on Aug. 7, members of U.S. Congress and a cohort of students, faculty, staff, and Chancellor Gene Block bonded over their work to give back to the community, and better help the state and country at-large understand their backgrounds and the people in their communities.
“Every single person in this room has done research that plans to give back to their community. Our experiences are what leads us to that research,” Lara explained.
U.S. Reps. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) returned to their alma mater to discuss the UCLA McNair Research Scholars Program, which is a federally funded TRIO program. McNair scholars are low-income and first generation college students, and the two-year research-based intensive program helps prepare them to pursue a Ph.D. and apply to graduate schools.
“The partnership with the federal government is what keeps us strong,” Block said. “We really are looking for the future leaders of California, the nation and the world.”
A key notion of the UCLA McNair program, established in 2003, is its emphasis on social justice through the humanities and social sciences. Its students are encouraged to find avenues of research that personally impact them and their communities, and come up with ways to give back.
A program like McNair lends academic support to students — yearly cohorts number approximately 30. Correa and Gomez empathized with the challenges of being first generation or underrepresented students, both having taken non-traditional routes to achieve their higher education successes.
“I had to take remedial English and remedial Math to get to the point where I could compete,” Correa said. “Everybody learns at their own pace and we all come in with different sets of skills when we start college, but we eventually get there.”
To that end, Correa sees higher education as a key conduit of national policy, and he intends to defend programs like the McNair. “To see us go the other way when it comes to these programs, I think it’s just unwise.”
“We want a pipeline of students from all walks of life to be successful,” Gomez added. “Any time there is an attack on these types of programs it is an attack on what America is all about.”
The Congressional members were eager to help.
“I’m here to learn from you and make sure your generation has the same opportunities I had,” Correa said. “If you’re going to keep America strong, then you also need to invest in these programs.”
Isaac Felix, a student majoring in human biology and society and Chicano/Chicana studies, said the McNair program was essential to his education. Born in San Diego, but raised in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Felix is a “transborder” student — someone who crossed the border daily for schooling. He plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in education in order to continue his research on those students who are growing up just like he did.
“A lot of us are doing research on how we ourselves are experiencing [public] policy barriers so it is imperative that these TRIO programs continue to be funded,” he said. “At the end of the day, you won’t have better research than from the people who are actually experiencing these narratives. And just for myself, I know this program has changed my trajectory a lot and allowed me to better understand myself.”
The UCLA McNair Research Scholars Program has grant-specific objectives for graduate school enrollment (60 percent) immediately following undergraduate studies and doctoral degree attainment within 10 years of obtaining a Bachelors (20 percent), which the program has surpassed every year, said program director Alice Ho. She emphasized the importance of combining the federal funding (approximately $240,000 annually) with UCLA resources, and the social justice component.
“All of these scholars are looking to make an impact with their research,” she added. “Each research project is addressing a critical social issue or need. That’s the added layer for us to then create that change you (Correa and Gomez) are asking about. How do we make sure we are mobilizing these young people to become change agents in their communities?”
Correa thanked the students, faculty and staff and implored them to keep the pressure on their elected officials when it comes to this kind of funding and research, while vowing to take their stories to Washington, D.C.
“Sharing stories and connecting the dots for people, it does change people’s minds on what is legitimate and rational policy,” Gomez added. “Our task is how do we change people’s views of these programs, especially across the aisle?”