Commencement Stories — Cynthia Romero

First generation college student, graduates as a double-major

Cynthia Romero

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — English was her second language. Cynthia Romero was born in the United States, but her parents only spoke Spanish, so she had to learn English at school. She grew up in Camarillo, a small town north of Los Angeles, where her father was a truck driver.

“We lived in the affluent area in town, only because of my father’s boss, who provided us with a house to live in. So, I attended the top school in the district — but there was very little diversity, and I remember feeling very alone and different. It was hard. I was never necessarily discriminated against, but there was no one for me to speak Spanish to,” Romero said.

Romero said she was aware of how different she was from the other children. She was pulled out of class every week for speech and language lessons. Even a simple difference in the lunches she brought to school, versus the lunches other children brought, seemed to set her apart. Or the fact that she qualified for reduced lunch, and no one else did.

But by the second grade, she had passed the English test administered in the language class. By middle school, she was put into honor’s English — and that’s when she said she really started to believe in herself.

“I just had this feeling like, I knew I could do it. I could keep up with the other children,” she said.

Romero’s parents were both born in Mexico. Her father came to California in the 1980s as he was granted amnesty, making the transition much easier for him. But, her mom came in 1993, undocumented, and pregnant with Romero.

“Because my parents struggled so much, they always pushed me to pursue a higher education. That was the most important thing to them for me to accomplish.”

As Romero was the first born, she had to learn to navigate a lot on her own. Her parents didn’t have the experience, and there weren’t resources and people around to show her the way.

“They didn’t know anything about university applications, or scholarships, the SATs, and FAFSA — those are all things I had to learn by myself,” Romero said.

Her junior and senior year of high school, she listened to the radio on her way to school. And one of the segments Romero listened to involved an immigration lawyer who would answer questions and give advice. Romero knew then that was what she wanted to pursue; she wanted to become an immigration lawyer.

“I didn’t even know what it entailed, or what I’d have to study. So, I asked my Spanish teacher and he told me to major in political science.”

Romero kept her university applications to a minimum because of application fees. She applied to UC Riverside, UC San Diego, and University of the Pacific in Stockton — but she only got accepted to UCR. Not knowing much about the school, or the area, she was unsure about how she was going to fit in.

She entered as a political science major, but by the spring quarter of her freshmen year she switched to Chicano Studies. She worked two jobs to help pay for school as well, as her parents couldn’t afford to help her out. Romero also joined a first-year learning community on campus, which she credits to helping her get through that first year of university.

That summer, she took two community college courses, hoping to finish her degree in three years.

By her second year, she decided to become more involved, so she joined Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA), Brown Issues, and Mujeres Unidas, all student organizations on campus. Through MECHA, she chaired her first conference, where she brought 300 elementary school students to UCR and hosted workshops, tours, and various activities for them.

She also took her first Spanish course her second year — and decided to double major. Her Spanish professor also introduced her and pushed her to apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program. By her junior year, her idea of graduating early became a distant thought as she was accepted as a MMUF fellow and she studied abroad in Spain and Italy.

“When I came back that summer, I had to quickly begin my research program. At this time, I had never been exposed to research, so I didn’t really know what to expect.”

She presented research for the first time that August at a conference. Her fourth year came around, and she was voted in as the chair of MECHA, she was involved with research, and she was working as a tutor to make ends meet. She also applied to the University of California Washington Center, or UCDC, began taking graduate-level courses, and decided to take-on an education minor. She applied to Teach for America (TFA), and did summer research in Wisconsin.

Fall 2016, she began her fifth and final year at UCR. She interned with Rep. Linda Sanchez in Washington D.C., through the UCDC program — which opened her eyes to one day getting into politics. Her goal is to make a difference for the undocumented community, specifically in education. When she came back to UCR the following quarter, she began her own research project, looking into undocumented Latino students at UCR, and if they feel a sense of community on campus.

At the end of the month, she will head to Las Vegas to do the required “boot camp” TFA hosts for incoming teachers. But, she will make it back for her commencement ceremony, and the Raza graduation — a cultural graduation ceremony hosted by Chicano Student Programs.

“I want other Latinos to look at my story, and know they can do it too. I didn’t have all the answers when it came to applying to a university, but if you get out there and talk to people, start conversations, ask questions, be open to dialogue and learning, you can get to where you want to be,” Romero said.

In the fall, she will begin teaching preschool in Clark County and will pursue her master’s in education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After finishing her master’s, she will continue her education by pursing a doctorate in an education field, with the hope of becoming an education administrator.

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