'First-gen' student pays it forward

Undergraduate honored with President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership

Valeria Jacqueline Alonso Blanco (Crown, psychology, ’18) with family members and UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal.
Valeria Jacqueline Alonso Blanco (Crown, psychology, ’18) has worked hard to help first-generation and undocumented students overcome obstacles and transfer to UC Santa Cruz. Now the University of California is honoring her with a prestigious President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership, recognizing the impact of her advocacy and activism.

The full impact of this good news didn’t kick in until she was invited to address the UC Board of Regents at a recent meeting, and saw the faces of her family members in the audience. “Knowing that they were very proud of me was what made this unforgettable,” she said.

Blanco, affectionately known as “Jacque,” is being honored for helping to create a more diverse pipeline of college-bound students. On top of her course load at UC Santa Cruz, she has worked hard to help prepare first-generation and undocumented students to transfer to UC campuses.

“Quite simply, Jacque’s work has improved, and will continue to improve, the educational experience of first-generation, undocumented, and Latinx students throughout all of UC,” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal said at the Regents meeting.

“As a campus, we’ve discovered there is no one-size-fits-all support program when it comes to transfer students,” Blumenthal continued. “It takes boots-on-the-ground work. It’s about identifying the needs of individual students, and working to meet them, one student at a time. In other words, it takes programs just like the one Jacque has helped build. Jacque, thank you for all that you do. You are a credit to your family, to UC Santa Cruz, and to the entire UC system.”

UC President Janet Napolitano presented the awards during the meeting. “Student activism and public service have been a hallmark of the University of California and its students for 150 years,” Napolitano said. “This year’s winners represent the best of that tradition.”

Blanco is deeply involved with the Cultivamos Excelencia Hispanic Serving Institution Initiative at UC Santa Cruz, developing and implementing a program that prepares SJCC students to transfer to UC Santa Cruz. She also provides academic and emotional support to migrant youth in Watsonville through her work with UC Santa Cruz’s Educational Partnership Center.

In her work, she has drawn extensively on her own undergraduate research as well as her experience as a first-gen student and a child of immigrants. Drawing from her life, she came to understand the essential role that families play in students’ decisions to pursue higher education.

Later, at UC Santa Cruz, she realized that she was one of the few first-generation Latinx students who had the opportunity to pursue higher education “due to the many racial, economic, and cultural barriers found in the U.S. educational systems. It was this realization that motivated me to find ways to use the privilege I had of attending college.”

“My freshman year, as a research assistant, I realized I could use research to build culturally relevant practices and strategies to increase enrollment and retention of underrepresented youth in higher education,” she said. “I know many parents migrate to the United States for the same reasons mine did, and I hope the university can increase their efforts to change policy and give underrepresented students the opportunity they have worked so hard for.”

After graduation, she plans to continue her work at Cultivamos Excelencia and the Culture and Achievement Collaborative. In the fall, she will apply to graduate school.