STEM Diversity graduation honors student achievement

'You are already catalyzing change,' speaker tells students at end-of-year celebration for graduating seniors and others in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math

Celebrants at this year's STEM Diversity graduation
Celebrants at this year's STEM Diversity graduation

Forty UC Santa Cruz STEM Diversity students, some sporting mortarboards decorated with microscopes and circuit boards, listened Friday as UC Irvine School of Medicine professor and Santa Cruz alum Sergio Armando Villalta urged them to be catalysts for change.

His remarks were part of an end-of-the-year celebration for graduating seniors, doctoral students, and those finishing up a year of research in preparation for graduate school in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Fifty-eight students were in this year’s STEM Diversity cohort, according to Yulianna Ortega, programs director.

Villalta (Merrill '02, biochemistry and molecular biology), who is assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at the UC Irvine School of Medicine and is researching how cells contribute to tissue repair in degenerative and autoimmune diseases, told the story of how his mother, who arrived alone in the United States from Colombia with $100 in her pocket, was an agent of change for her family. She learned English, got a job, and made sure her children got an education.

“She carved a path for her family,” Villalta said.

In the same way, he told graduates, they have the ability to transform their own histories.

Recounting how his path to success was not linear, he said the obstacles he faced taught him important lessons.

Be passionate and never get comfortable, he urged.

“If you are feeling comfortable, it’s a sign you are not challenging yourself,” he said.

Have faith in yourself, he told graduates. Strike a balance between humility and confidence, be respectful of other people’s opinions, and be patient.

“Collectively, these things transformed me,” Villalta said. “These lessons allowed me to grow further as an individual.”

“Make your own path,” he told the gathering. “Make your own list of lessons and remember that, as you sit here today, you are already catalyzing change.”

The celebration, which included dinner, celebratory videos, and the presentation of handmade stoles to each graduate, was designed to honor students’ achievements.

“Many students have overcome multiple struggles to attain the STEM degree,” Ortega said. “We want them to remember they are part of a much larger community of support and that staff and faculty are dedicated to their success and are proud of their accomplishments.”

Reyna Montoya (Oakes ’17, biology) said she was happy to be graduating and was looking forward to applying to dental school. She grew up in Oxnard, the daughter of a single working mother, and was the first in her family to go to college.

“I’m pretty excited,” she said of graduation. “I’ve worked so hard for four-and-a-half years.”

Nancy Sanchez (Cowell ’17, MCD biology), who grew up in Fairfield, Calif., said she planned to apply for graduate school while Alejandro Anaya (Oakes ’17, MCD biology) said he was off for a summer research internship at the National Institutes of Health with the goal of returning to his hometown of Watsonville to work as a physician and be a role model, helping others to achieve their goals.

Angel Resendez, a 28-year-old graduate student in chemistry, said the celebration capped a whirlwind year that included getting his Ph.D. and quickly starting a post-doc research position at Stanford University, where he is doing drug discovery work.

At UC Santa Cruz, he said, he worked with Professor of Organic Chemistry Bakthan Singaram studying alternative and less-expensive methods to measure sugars to help determine the health of the human gut.

With the cheers echoing through the decorated hall and families snapping cell phone photos, UC Santa Cruz Dean of Physical and Biological Sciences Paul Koch told the crowd, “This is a great day for our students."

The end of the year, he said, "is wonderful because we get to celebrate your accomplishments—but it’s also bittersweet because you’re leaving us."