The world that awaits the UC Riverside class of 2020 is far different from the one that existed when they first arrived on campus. A deadly pandemic, which has upended the way universities operate and plunged the world economy into a likely recession, will have lasting effects for years to come. In the midst of this global health crisis, police violence against Black people sparked protests around the world, shining a light on systemic racism and forcing governments big and small to reexamine the way law enforcement, criminal justice, and other civic operations are carried out and funded.
But UCR’s graduates will not go forth empty-handed as they seek to navigate these uncharted waters. They bring with them an education dedicated to solving problems in real time, not through mere theory or conjecture, but through practice and hands-on research.
They also represent a student population, unlike those of many peer institutions, that mirrors the demographics of its institution’s home. Above, you’ll see some of those demographics that make up the class of 2020. Below, you’ll learn about nine of the graduates themselves and hear some of the stories behind those numbers. You’ll discover how they overcame challenges many would have thought impossible, persevering to become the leaders of tomorrow not in spite of those obstacles, but because of them. For many, their stories were born here — and will continue here. Others will make their mark elsewhere.
While the world’s problems are daunting, opportunities for change abound. The UC Riverside class of 2020 is ready to get started.
Chelsea Ramirez’ older brother, Kenny, vividly remembers standing in the parking lot of a Best Western. The Ramirez family — mom, dad, and four kids — had been evicted from their home and were checking into the hotel.
“I remember laughing and thinking, ‘Well, it can’t get any worse than this. It can only go up from here,’” said Kenny, 30.
Chelsea, 22, a double major in theatre, film, and digital production and creative writing, has been awarded a prestigious scholarship to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her parents, Estuardo and Brenda, are Guatemalan immigrants. When the kids were young, whether there would be $20 to buy the family dinner often depended on whether Estuardo, a construction worker, was one of the lucky day laborers picked in the Home Depot parking lot.
“Sometimes, he stood out there in the rain,” Chelsea said. “People would cheat him and not give him money.”
The family car was usually a junkyard find her father had rendered roadworthy. Money woes meant frequent relocations — Los Angeles, Rialto, Rancho Cucamonga, and Fontana, among other cities. But Chelsea said she didn’t learn struggle from her parents; she learned perseverance. Their emphasis was God, family, education, and positivity.
“My parents would go without eating to take care of me,” Chelsea said. “But they made everything fun for us.”
Her first year at UCR was tough. She came in as a track and field athlete, determined to become an Olympian. But she had overcommitted, and her grades suffered. She lived on about $20 a week.
“I had this storm building up underneath me,” she said.
She discovered a creative outlet in storytelling, quit track and field, and gave herself a goal: straight A’s every quarter the rest of the way. She achieved it six out of nine quarters. Chelsea turned her attention to a film career, having discovered a knack for dissecting the work of cinematographers and directors, spotting inconsistencies in terms of props moved or costumes changed during scenes. “La La Land” is a favorite movie because of the bright color palette chosen by director Damien Chazelle.
“That movie was an awakening for me,” she said. “I’m fascinated by color. Her hair is so red, and the colors complement her skin tone.” Another favorite movie is “Slumdog Millionaire,” about an underdog who perseveres. The story arc for the Ramirez family is a happy one, as well. Kenny, a UCLA graduate and attorney, bought a five-bedroom house, and the entire family — mom, dad, and four siblings — now lives there. He was also recently named to lead an established law practice in San Bernardino. After winning every major distinction and scholarship UCR’s theater department has to offer, Chelsea fetched a George Lucas fellowship to attend USC, where she will pursue a master’s degree in film production. Each year since 1973, a graduate of the film school has been nominated for an Academy Award or an Emmy.
“She is probably the most determined person I know,” Kenny said. “This is what she’s supposed to do.”
Growing up, Jonathan Walters shuffled between six elementary schools, four middle schools, and four high schools around the Inland Empire as his mom, a beautician, struggled to find a permanent place to live for him and his four siblings. The family never stayed in one place for more than a year, living in apartments, motel rooms, friends’ houses — and even their car. When Walters, who graduated from Moreno Valley’s Canyon Springs High School in 2012, returned to the Inland Empire last fall to begin the Master of Education program at UC Riverside, he started feeling strange — and it got worse.
“I had an anxiety attack,” said Walters, 26. “I went to go see a therapist on campus and explained to them how I grew up here. They let me know your body remembers those scars and the things you went through.”
Through the help of his friends and his faith, Walters persevered and has become the highest-achieving student in his cohort, according to Jennifer Quezada, his teacher education program supervisor. He has also earned a single-subject teaching credential in English, spending the last school year working as a student teacher of ninth-grade English at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley. When the teacher he was working with went on maternity leave in the fall, Walters was chosen as the substitute, responsible for creating lesson plans, grading, and attendance.
“In the classroom, he exhibits superior integrity, and one would think he is a veteran teacher,” Quezada said. “He is not only strong in his knowledge of the English content and culturally relevant pedagogy, but he does not hesitate to support his fellow classmates. He truly embodies the core values of the GSOE program.”
That support included working with a student who was having trouble with English. Walters helped her figure out how to translate materials into her native language and then use text-to-speech technology to submit her work. Walters fought hard to achieve an education, spending four-to-five hours on a bus each day to get to and from high school. When he got there, he would save his slice of pizza at lunch because there was no dinner at home. He also went to tutoring every day in order to pass his classes.
“School has just always been my outlet,” said Walters, who received his bachelor’s in education from California State University, Stanislaus, in 2017. “It was for me a healthy distraction. I didn’t have to worry about what’s going on at home. I didn’t have to focus on the fact that when I get home, we’re probably not going to have lights, gas, or water.”
Now he’s striving to make sure every student has an opportunity to succeed, no matter what obstacles they face. He hopes to teach high school English after graduation and eventually earn a doctorate in education and teach at the university level. He’s already learned a few lessons on how to forge meaningful relationships with students.
“I was not afraid to tell them, even the first day, ‘I genuinely do love and care for you, and I’m going to do the best I can and provide you the best education possible,’” Walters said. “You get to grow with people and learn what their interests are and how they respond to different things. Learning about my students really allowed me to connect with them.”
Science has always connected María Omary and her daughter, Lina. As a kid, Lina’s science projects were almost universally food-related — a trend inspired by her mother, who holds a doctorate in food science and technology. In fifth grade, Lina won first place in Riverside County for a project that evaluated the quality of biscuits using different baking powders. She had friends taste the biscuits and fill out surveys.
“I think science was part of the conversation in our household all the time,” said María, 58.
Partly due to her mom’s influence, Lina, 29, said she’s known since high school that she wanted to be a doctor. After graduating from the UCR School of Medicine in May, she entered a residency program in psychiatry at UC San Francisco in June. María, graduated this spring with a master’s in public policy. She applied to the program at Lina’s suggestion, building on a career that included master’s and doctoral degrees from Clemson University, five years of professional experience in product development, and another 14 years in academia.
Still, the road to commencement hasn’t been a smooth one for the Omarys. In January 2016, María’s husband and Lina’s father, a retired engineer and researcher at UCR’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology, suffered a massive stroke. To aid in his ongoing recovery, María left the workforce; she continues to serve as her husband’s primary caregiver. Lina, who had been admitted into the School of Medicine just four months before her father’s stroke, said the experience played a pivotal role in her decision to complete her medical education locally.
Courtesy of donors David W. and Nina P. Mitchell, Lina attended the School of Medicine on a full scholarship. Her award entails coming back to the Inland Empire to practice, which she intends to do for the entirety of the scholarship term — at least five years. While at UCR, she gained experience with the student-run Riverside Free Clinic in downtown Riverside and helped pilot two student organizations themed around nutrition and psychiatric education.
“I found there’s a huge need for Latinx physicians to serve that community,” Lina said, using the gender-neutral adjective. “I’m Latina; I speak Spanish, and I want to use that to change the lens through which the Latinx community tends to view mental health and break down some of the stigma against seeking help.”
María knew returning to work full time was out of the question, but the opportunity to apply to an immersive internship through UCR’s Blum Initiative on Global & Regional Poverty proved too appealing to pass up. With funding from the Blum Initiative, María traveled to her native Colombia for six weeks, working at the SACIAR Foundation, one of the largest food banks in Medellín.
“My interest in food banks started with an interest in minimizing food waste, because of its great environmental impact, and improving food recovery to feed people in need,” she said. “My capstone project involves analyzing food banks in the Inland Empire in relation to social vulnerability, poverty, homelessness, and COVID-19 cases.”
She and Lina share an interest in studying food and its impact on brain function, and they hope to collaborate at some point.
“I’m very interested in using food to improve brain health as an alternative to traditional medicine,” Lina said.
“What we eat can impact our mental health,” María added. “When Lina comes back here, hopefully we’ll get to do some work together.”
Monique Guerra’s dream job title is already emblazoned in her mind: U.S. Secretary of Education. The 22-year-old graduated in June as a double major in Spanish and education. She took four classes every quarter she was enrolled at UCR, in addition to holding down two part-time jobs and volunteering. While it was stressful, Guerra said it was nothing she couldn’t handle. The oldest of three kids, her mother struggled with drug addiction. Guerra grew up in and out of foster homes, always making sure she and her siblings stayed together.
“I had to do the best with what we had — making sure we were eating, making it on time to school, that we were clothed,” Guerra said about growing up in Wilmington, a community south of Los Angeles. “Needless to say, I grew up really fast.”
At 17, Guerra emancipated and spent her senior year in high school figuring out where her younger brother and sister would end up. She skipped prom and the senior trip, both luxuries outside of her financial and mental scope. Living through these experiences firsthand and then finding support through UCR’s Guardian Scholars program — which provides resources for students who are current or former foster youth — and the Graduate School of Education gave her a solid background to pursue a career in higher education.
“My plan is to pursue education policy; I feel like that’s where I can make the greatest impact,” Guerra said. “Having seen my siblings go to school, having seen policy that needs to be written or rewritten for foster youth, there is not enough support for them, for English as a Second Language and special needs students. I’ve seen a lot of flaws growing up, but I have also learned about the most effective ways to make change.”
UCR has equipped Guerra with the history, knowledge, and more importantly, the language to properly impact the community, she said. The tattoos on her skin tell a story. A waterfall represents a mountain spring that has become a “happy place” for Guerra and her sister. The coy fish represent peace and humility, and the lotus flower represents her brother.
“It shows that something beautiful can still grow from something so dark,” she said.
As a volunteer for AmeriCorps, she tutored and mentored local students. For United Way, she provides financial literacy classes to foster youth. She works as a database analyst for UCR Human Resources and volunteers with the Early Academic Outreach Program, which brings in economically disadvantaged high school students to visit campus. She also serves as a Graduate School of Education ambassador. Guerra met her best friend, Wendy Mejía, in a foster youth transitional home during her first year at UCR. She points to several mentors who have helped her on her journey: Kenyon Whitman, program director for the Office of Foster Youth Support Services/Guardian Scholars; Tuppett Yates, Guardian Scholars executive director; Louie RodrÍguez, interim dean of the Graduate School of Education; as well as Liliana Aguayo and Richard Rangel, who are both academic advisors at GSOE.
“I couldn’t have done this without Guardian Scholars,” Guerra said. “That was my only support system, and if I was going to get through this, I needed to lean on them.”
Like many kids, Ulyana Tkachenko wanted to follow a different path than her parents, both computer science engineers. Growing up in Cupertino — the home of Apple — computer science was also heavily encouraged in high school. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” Tkachenko said, laughing. “Both of my parents are in computer science, so I definitely was like, ‘No, I’m not doing this.’”
Despite her resistance, her parents convinced Tkachenko to take a class on the programming language Java, which immediately changed her mind. Tkachenko decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science at UC Riverside, drawn by its rising reputation and the prospect of working collaboratively with other students and faculty.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Tkachenko, 22. “I really like how accessible all the teachers are, and starting from the second year, I already had a research position that was paid.”
Tkachenko worked as an undergraduate research assistant with lecturer Jeffrey McDaniel and former lecturer and graduate student Brian Russell, Ph.D. ’18, helping to code planer routing algorithms for microfluidic devices, which are used for drug delivery. She went on to work with Paea LePendu, an assistant professor of teaching in computer science, on a project LePendu began with Riverside County to aid its annual count of the homeless population. She said LePendu encouraged her to apply to join his research group after seeing her application to teach high schoolers in the college’s monthly data science academy.
“He’s been pushing me to do bigger things that normally I wouldn’t put myself out there for,” she said. “I think that’s what makes him a wonderful mentor.”
Tkachenko and six other engineering students wrote sophisticated computer programs to sort, analyze, and present data collected by volunteers interviewing homeless residents during the survey period, which was previously input by hand.
“Now Riverside County has a quick way of getting the results and can spend the hours figuring out how best to apply this data instead,” she said.
Tkachenko also helped on the ground, volunteering to interview homeless residents during the 2019 count, which she described as an eye-opening experience.
“I realized that it could really happen to anyone,” she said. “It really inspired me to work toward helping provide them with the services they need.”
For the 2020 count, the team refined the software developed in 2019 and coded a new website from scratch to better present the data, as well as help streamline and automate future data. As a team leader, Tkachenko was charged with presenting their work to the county in a Zoom conference with over 100 participants, including many city officials. Tkachenko was encouraged to lead the talk by LePendu and considers it her biggest achievement at UCR. Her work led to a job with Riverside County focusing on data visualization for the aging population at high risk of homelessness.
Tkachenko will head to UC San Diego this fall for a master’s degree in machine learning. She hopes to either become a professor or continue working in big-data analysis.
“There’s just so much information that we’re still in the very first steps of being able to process and many fields where that processing could be automated,” she said. “I really want to work for a company that does something like that, possibly around health care. I feel we could be saving a lot of lives if we start looking into those records.”
Valtteri “Val” Salomaki grew up playing sports — lots of sports — though it was football he wanted to play in college. While an injury caused him to reevaluate his plans, he carried the discipline, dedication, and team-playing approach gleaned from athletics to UC Riverside, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2018. Now Salomaki, a rising entrepreneur at age 24, has completed an MBA with a concentration in management at UCR’s School of Business.
“I had to transition my passion for athletics to something else, and business was that,” Salomaki said.
Salomaki is already leading or collaborating in three startup companies: J’Bez Barbershop & Salon in Riverside, co-owned with UCR alumnus Gerson Lemus ’18; Free Logic Media, a digital consulting company that helps build digital platforms and support networks for local business owners; and EDGE Sound Research, which he co-founded with UCR digital composition doctoral student Ethan Castro. EDGE Sound Research creates technology that turns sound at any frequency into vibrations. Castro, who was born with partial hearing loss, first developed the technology because he wanted to “feel” music emitting through speakers. As an undergraduate, Salomaki’s drive to understand imports, exports, and international trade led him to join education abroad programs in both Hong Kong and Italy.
“I didn’t just want to know what I heard on the news; I wanted to find out for myself,” Salomaki said.
During his senior year, he interned at Redlands-based mapping and spatial analysis firm ESRI, where he supported the integrated marketing and digital performance management teams. The internship turned into a temporary student technician job that ended in May. With an MBA in hand and faculty members such as Sean Jasso, professor of practice with the School of Business, encouraging his endeavors. Salomaki said he’s ready to focus on spurring innovation in the Inland Empire. In June 2019, he launched “The Brew,” a podcast featuring Inland Empire small business owners hosted at Riverside Studios, a nonprofit space created by Rickerby Hinds, a professor of playwriting in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production, along with support from Riverside city and county officials.
“I think it’s false to say the Inland Empire is going to be the second Silicon Valley, but there are a lot of similarities and many opportunities to grow and aim to close the digital gap,” said Salomaki, who was born in Finland and came to the United States at age 1. He and his family moved to Carlsbad when he was 9.
Salomaki said his philosophy for undertaking business opportunities is to delve in with passion and heart.
“I want to consistently build and sell companies, products, while establishing ecosystems in the Inland Empire,” Salomaki said. “There’s opportunity; it’s just missing small pieces. I’m not trying to make competitors here; I’m trying to build partners. That’s going to solve the innovation issue.”
Plants have been a part of Vanessa Perez’s life as long as she can remember. As a child, she worked in her father’s backyard garden where he grew fruits and vegetables. She would often play on a monkey bar while he explained how to salt for snails or graft branches. Perez, 21, graduated this June with a bachelor’s degree in plant biology with a concentration in ecology, a path inspired in part by her father’s love for gardening.
“I have a lot of childhood memories in that garden,” she said. “I developed a love for plants.”
Perez found the differences in plant varieties fascinating and felt that compared to studying human or animal biology there was more uncharted territory to discover.
“They have so many different mechanisms that are completely different than people, and everything about their morphology and physiology is so interesting,” she said.
That passion has taken Perez, the first in her family to complete a four-year degree, on a unique journey that has included trips to the Mojave Desert and Arizona to study palm trees and wheat grown in arid climates. Exequiel Ezcurra, a professor of ecology in the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences, took Perez on as an intern in his lab when she was a freshman. She had a clear idea from the start of what she wanted to do, he said.
“She proved to be disciplined, purpose-driven, and very eager to learn,” Ezcurra said.
Perez has tackled several challenging research projects, including one studying the properties of leaves in desert conditions, for which she collected and analyzed hundreds of leaf samples. In her sophomore year, she co-authored a research paper on leaf anatomy in cultivated fan palms and is the lead author of an upcoming research paper — both significant achievements for an undergraduate, Ezcurra said. Last year, Perez studied the taxonomy of plants from Madagascar, identifying three new species, while on a summer internship at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Perez has also utilized her botanical knowledge to work with Facilities Services to map all the trees on campus for a GIS project, identifying their species and size. She logged about 1,000 trees before the project was halted due to the campus closure in March.
“I really like to stay busy,” Perez said. “If there’s open space I have to fill it.”
Perez volunteers with the Chicano Peer Link Mentor Program, Association of Women in Science, and R’Pantry. She has also tutored students at her old middle and high schools in Riverside.
“It’s all about going back to where I came from and becoming more involved,” Perez said.
Teaching is her other passion, and she will join Teach for America for two years after graduation. Perez will be working with underprivileged children in Los Angeles and hopes to teach biology to high schoolers. She said she would like to eventually continue her research in plant biology and pursue a master’s degree.
“I think I am well prepared for my path, and I know that if I need guidance my mentors from UCR will be there,” she said.
Hard work, initiative, and years of volunteer service in her field have transformed geology major Yuka Oshima from a student into a teacher. And soon, she’ll be rolling to the University of Colorado for a graduate program in museum and field studies. Oshima was exposed to science, technology, engineering, and math early on, growing up with a software engineer father in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley. When she arrived at UC Riverside, she knew the general direction her academic career would take.
“Trilobites, dinosaurs, paleontology — apparently, I like old dead stuff,” said Oshima, 22. “A science-related field was natural for me.”
Weekly lunches with professors helped awaken her enthusiasm for collections of formerly living specimens, and soon a budding museum scientist emerged. As president of UCR’s Natural History Museum Club, she organized volunteer activities for students and tours of the university’s specimen collections. She has also interned at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, helping maintain its invertebrate collections, and volunteered for similar work with paleontology collections at the San Bernardino County Museum.
“I want to spread awareness of the presence and importance of natural history collections, both at UCR and around the globe,” Oshima said. “They’re libraries of raw data. Without them, we can’t do any studies in paleontology, and we lose information that’s key to understanding climate change, ecology, biology, and so many different realms.”
For a National Science Foundation-funded fossil digitization project, she developed a taxonomic dictionary with information about more than 6,500 different creatures. Her work benefits a consortium of nine natural history museums united to organize information about marine fossils of the eastern Pacific. Lauren English, a museum scientist with the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, said Oshima also came up with the idea to update the decades-old gastropod exhibit in the Geology Building, which she said lacked labels to let visitors know what they were looking at — or why.
“She did an excellent job completely redesigning the text, artwork, and specimen layout for the exhibit, and coordinating with staff and the museum club to put the exhibit together,” English said.
The exhibit will be assembled for all to see as soon as the quarantine ends. Oshima spent fall and winter of this academic year working with staff and faculty to develop a class on natural history museum collections through the R’Course program, which lets undergraduates design and lead their own courses. She taught it online during the spring quarter. The curriculum focused on the basics of specimen curation and emphasized the importance of preserving the raw data represented by each specimen. Oshima said she would like to teach again at some point again in her career. She offered some advice for how to get involved as an undergraduate and build a strong resume.
“If you want to do something and you need help, ask for that help and keep asking until you get to the right place,” Oshima said. “It might take some time and energy, but eventually you’ll get where you want to go by reaching out.”