Marcela Ramirez, the University of California’s 42nd student regent, talks goals for her tenure
By Jeanette Marantos
When Californians approved a referendum to put a student on the University of California’s Board of Regents in 1974, the idea was to have a voting member who could give voice to the university’s scholars.
Representing the UC’s nearly 239,000 students may sound like a daunting task, but it is one that Marcela Ramirez, a UCR graduate student and the board’s 42nd student regent, takes very seriously. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to serving students, she said, especially in California, “where the complexity of our students is like no other state in the country.”
Ramirez, 35, grew up immersed in California’s multicultural community. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she calls herself a true champion for marginalized communities. Her educational experiences transformed her life, but it all started with awareness, and she credits that to her first year of studying abroad as a student at Cal State Fullerton.
She arrived in the south of France in August 2001, in the midst of Europe’s conversion into the European Union and just a few weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Watching those events unfold gave her an eye-opening perspective, especially after the United States bombed Afghanistan.
“From the United States perspective, we showed patriotism and fought our attackers, but from the European perspective, the U.S. was wrongfully hurting civilians,” she said. “I got really politicized after that. I realized people can have conflicting truths, but they’re still truths to the individuals. The challenge is to build collective understandings and do it together, so each individual reframes their perspective for the greater good.”
Getting others to recognize and understand those multiple truths is one of Ramirez’s missions as a student advocate. She supports programs that increase cultural sensitivity and awareness for all students. “Students are developing their identities in college, [yet] administrators talk about undergraduates and graduates as one-dimensional people,” she said. “We need more multicultural services and multicultural experiences.”
When she becomes a voting member of the board in July, after a year of learning the ropes as student-regent designate, her goal is to advocate for graduate students, who receive just a fraction of the funding and services that the UC provides to undergraduates.
“Graduate students have specialized needs when it comes to career advising and professional socialization. We are the next generation of doctors, lawyers, administrators and faculty members. We are the intellectual minds of the future.”
Ramirez’s passion is fueled in part by her academic background. She has a master’s degree in higher education counseling from Cal State Long Beach, and more than a decade of experience in developing cultural centers and programs on college campuses.
She served as the founding director of the Middle Eastern Student Center at UCR. Her Ph.D. work is studying the purpose and contribution of college cultural centers, but she’s already sold on their value.
“They’re spaces where students of color or marginalized identities are affirmed, a place where they can relax from societal issues and be in community. From Chicano rights to Arab spring, they’re a safe place where they can talk about what’s going on, and learn about their cultures histories, struggles and triumphs,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez was a full-time doctoral student, but she still wanted to continue her advocacy. Being a student regent felt like the perfect opportunity for her, especially since she wants to become a college president someday. “It’s the best way to get hands-on experience with the [higher ed] system and the kinds of difficult decisions you have to make as a university president. You learn what it’s like to engage with politics in the public sphere.”
Former UC student regent Sadia Saifuddin said Ramirez’s perspective is especially important: “When you have women of color on the board of regents, you open the door for other women to get involved in higher education and politics.”
The position is a lot of work; Ramirez is on the UC President’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force, and she sits on several committees, including the LGBT Advisory Committee. There’s a myriad of issues that come before the board, but Ramirez is thrilled about all she is learning. The position is unpaid, although student regents do get their tuition and fees reimbursed, and — bonus! — a parking pass valid at all UC campuses.
But Ramirez says her most important job as a student regent will be elevating the concerns and perspectives of all UC students to the board of regents. It’s not a tall order, Ramirez insists. “It’s about building awareness and encouraging relationships. We are institutions of higher education; this is the thing we’re supposed to be good at. If we can’t do it, who is going to do it?”