Graduating senior propelled by curiosity and a desire to give back

A sociology degree and plenty of hands-on learning prepare Jenn Figueroa for life after graduation

Photo of Jenn Figueroa

"It's important to me to be doing something about social justice, through service or activism," said Jenn Figueroa, a graduating senior who changed majors from astrophysics to sociology. "Service is just part of life. It just has to be." (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.)

The ten residential colleges are one of the most distinctive aspects of the undergraduate student experience at UC Santa Cruz.

Campus leaders like to describe the colleges as "landing pads that become launching pads." Students arrive as frosh, make friends, and build strong communities that support them throughout their college years, "launching" them into leadership roles and experiences that often shape their lives beyond graduation.

By that standard, Jenn Figueroa is well on her way to the stratosphere.

Figueroa arrived at College Ten from her hometown of Northridge in Southern California and quickly bonded with students on her hall. She took advantage of every extracurricular program the college offered, then helped build community as a residential assistant at College Nine for two years.

The themes of College Nine and College Ten—international and global perspectives, and social justice and community, respectively—are implemented through PRAXIS, a college-based organization focused on community building and social justice. As a participant in the Chancellor's Undergraduate Internship Program, Figueroa has led weekly service-learning projects with community partners that include Habitat for Humanity, Save Our Shores, the Homeless Garden Project, Shared Adventures, and Second Harvest Food Bank.

"I've taken advantage of every opportunity at College Ten," said Figueroa, a sociology major who will graduate in June. "It's important to me to be doing something about social justice, through service or activism."

Figueroa was introduced to service learning and volunteerism during high school. The theme of "service" runs through her UC Santa Cruz experience: She enrolled in the Everett Program, which trains students in information technology so they can collaborate with nonprofits and social-justice organizations that need to bolster their computing infrastructure, and was inspired to add a minor in Global Enterprise Studies.

Sociology is a good fit for Figueroa, who enrolled as an astrophysics major and switched to computer science before finding her "forever home" in sociology. "I really liked the Everett Program's hands-on work," said Figueroa, who learned HTML, web development, and other skills. "It was easy with my computer science background, and I like thinking through the social implications and how to use technology for good."

Through PRAXIS and the Everett Program, Figueroa got to know people she never would have met through her own social network, and she has learned about numerous organizations devoted to diverse causes. This spring, Figueroa is helping develop a customer-relations management system for the Watsonville Film Festival. Run largely by volunteers, the annual festival will benefit from having computer-based systems that will endure through the inevitable turnover of volunteers.

"When you see the great work others are doing, you see the potential to do it yourself. It's really empowering," she said. "Service is just part of life. It just has to be."

Figueroa is an outstanding role model for other students, according to Wendy Baxter, director of academic and co-curricular programs at College Nine and College Ten, who has worked with Figueroa for four years.

"Jenn has a great curiosity about life and people, and a passion to further our theme of social justice, and she does it in a way that empowers others to be leaders," said Baxter. "She really lifts people up, brings people along. And she's humble, creative, and fun to be with."

College programs offer student leaders opportunities to grow and take on more responsibility over the years. Baxter notes that by the time they graduate, students like Figueroa have a portfolio of skills that makes them very marketable: working with diverse groups, problem solving, large-group decision making, working independently, meeting deadlines, event planning, publicity, and more. "They have the key skills workplaces are looking for," she said. "Jenn will be a gift to anyone that hires her."

Inside the classroom, Figueroa has been inspired by instructors like Fran Guerra, who taught introductory sociology and emphasized the social implications of big data, and Steve McKay, who invites undergraduates to participate in his research on poverty, wages, and the housing shortage in Santa Cruz County.

Since her sophomore year, Figueroa has worked 8-10 hours a week on the colleges' audio-visual tech crew, but she makes room for fun, too: She plays intramural softball and dabbles in spoken word poetry and break dancing. All the hard work is paying off, though: She is thrilled to be graduating without debt.

Thinking back on her four years at UC Santa Cruz, Figueroa is surprised by how much she has grown as a person. "When I first visited as a high school senior, the campus seemed so big, and the application process was so confusing," she said. Now, she is ready to give back.

"I'd like to get a job at a university, where I can promote social justice or service learning," she said. "I'm excited for the future."