Alumna and award-winning author empowers the next generation

Reyna Grande talks about finding her voice and fostering creativity and advocacy at UCSC

(Kresge ’99, creative writing, film and video) 

Reyna Grande, an international award-winning author, alumna, and supporter of current students at UC Santa Cruz, inspires many. She is a key advocate for the empowerment and visibility of the Latinx community, leaving an indelible mark on the literary landscape and beyond.  

Grande’s bestselling memoir, The Distance Between Us, chronicles her life before and after she arrived in the United States from Mexico as an undocumented child immigrant. 

“I am very grateful for this book because, on a personal level, it was this book that set me free,” Grande said. “It helped me to reframe the way I saw my immigrant experiences. It empowered me.”

When the book was released in 2012, Grande had been laid off from her teaching job with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and worried about how she was going to support her family. Then, thanks to word of mouth, the book began to take off and became a bestseller. With that came the financial stability Grande needed to keep writing.  

The much-anticipated sequel, A Dream Called Home, was released in 2018. 

Grande has received an American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, CNN, The Lily at The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed, among others. 

Giving back to her alma mater

Grande established the Reyna Grande Scholarship at UCSC to support students seeking to amplify Latinx culture. 

The scholarship is awarded annually to two students–one from Kresge and another from any college—for creative projects intended to advance the standing and visibility of Latinx culture and history.

Through her scholarship, Grande wants to tell emerging artists currently at UCSC: “I believe in you.”

“I want them to develop confidence in themselves,” she said. “To not be afraid to try out their ideas, to take risks, to have fun and enjoy the creative process. I want them to learn how to fight for their art, how to advocate for themselves, how to take the initiative to apply for funding.  Opportunities don’t usually come to you. You have to go to them. I want them to gain more confidence, and by receiving the scholarship, I think that will give them a good boost!”

Grande was inspired to create the Reyna Grande Scholarship from her own experience. 

As a first-generation and low-income student at UCSC, Grande had difficulty pursuing creative projects. But with the help of a handful of scholarships through Kresge College, she was able to self-publish her first book Under the Guamuchil Tree, a collection of short stories, and then received a grant to transform those stories into skits. 

“Having that kind of financial support helped me tremendously—I learned to embrace whatever creative ideas came my way, to see the possibilities, to pursue those ideas, and to make them into realities. The grants and scholarships I received made me feel that someone believed in me. That helped me believe in myself.”

Grande’s passion for writing began long before she attended UCSC, but the university helped her find her voice. 

Grande, who learned English as a second language, was the first in her family to go to college.  Her love for writing started in middle school—through short-stories, self-described cheesy love poems, and journal entries—especially because she wasn’t yet comfortable speaking English aloud. 

“I was too self-conscious of my Mexican accent and was afraid to mispronounce a word or conjugate a verb wrong. I preferred writing down my thoughts because you couldn’t hear my accent then, and it didn’t matter how a word was pronounced. I was an avid reader, so I knew a lot of English vocabulary, but since I didn’t know how to pronounce those words, I never used them when speaking, but I used them when writing.”

Because the books she had access to weren’t written by Latinx authors, she never thought she could pursue writing professionally; until, one of her community college professors gave Grande books written by Latina writers, encouraging her to pursue creative writing, and recommended she transfer to UCSC. 

Grande recalls many memories from her time at UCSC, both difficult and happy ones, and wrote about them in her book A Dream Called Home. She mentions the first time she met an author in the flesh (Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston); participated in her first protest in 1996 when Prop 209 passed, abolishing affirmative action in California; and learned life skills like painting walls, snaking drains, and refinishing furniture through her job with Kresge maintenance.

As a first-generation student, Grande had to navigate a complex college landscape without the support of her family. For current students that may face similar challenges, Grande offers some advice:

Being a first-gen student is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that you are making history in your family. You are breaking cycles. You are leading the way for change, taking your family on a whole new path. You are laying the groundwork that will benefit generations to come. It’s a big responsibility, and you are rising to the challenge because if not you, then who? On the downside, it’s a super lonely experience. You’re on that path alone, and it’s scary and overwhelming. Yet, there’s no one in your family to call and ask, “How do I do this?” because no one has ever done it before. You’re the first, and so you’re on your own. If you ever felt a distance between you and your family before, you soon discover that your college experience is taking you even further away from them! They will never fully understand your struggles as a college student. But guess what? There are so many others that will—and this is what my advice is—find your community. You don’t have to be alone. Be proactive and use all the resources the campus has to offer, join those clubs, go to the student meet-and-greets, learn to network, and be open to making new friendships. That will get you through those moments when you doubt yourself, when college life feels too daunting.