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Appreciating an Untraditional Path to Degree


As part of "Voices of CSUSM," a new feature in Steps magazine, recent psychological sciences graduate Ilianna Ramirez shares her story of overcoming challenges.

By Ilianna Ramirez

I’m proud to be of American Indian, Guamanian and Mexican heritage. But I’m not going to lie – being from a multicultural background comes with more than its share of challenges. 

There are many days when you feel like you're never good enough, never enough for the population that you’re around that particular day. 

Some days, I'm not Native enough because I'm not fully Native or because I don't speak my Native language. Other days, I’m not as Mexican as others if I’m not speaking Spanish consistently. Or it could be my lack of a certain tattoo to represent my Pacific Islander heritage. 

I’ve learned over time to switch between those identities – usually without even thinking about it – depending on the circle of people I’m with in that moment. It’s like a light switch that I can turn on and off as needed. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Emphasizing one of my identities over the others can also bring about self-doubt and sadness because I’m doing it to be accepted by the person or group I’m with in that moment. 

I’m grateful that my time at Cal State San Marcos has helped me navigate those challenges. 

My journey in higher education been a windy road, from starting at the University of Hawaii-Manoa as a marine biology major to earning three associate degrees at Grossmont College to now finishing my bachelor’s in psychological science this spring at CSUSM. 

It’s certainly not a traditional path, and there were many days that I worried about not living up to some imaginary timeline of how long it was supposed to take me to get my degree.  

Today, I can appreciate an untraditional journey that has taken six years to complete. And I’m especially thankful that this path led me to CSUSM. It’s here that I reconnected with my American Indian heritage while also having the opportunity to fully appreciate and explore my Guamanian and Mexican identities. 

I am a descendant of Navajo Nation, and my clan spans the four corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Most of my family lives in Arizona, including half on the reservation. I spent much of my childhood growing up in Arizona near my Native family. But I lost touch with much of that part of my identity as a teenager when we moved to San Diego. Even though Southern California is home to a significant Native population, it’s always different when you’re coming from a different place and not used to the customs or practices. 

While different tribes have many shared experiences, I'm also cognizant of being a guest here because this is not my traditional homeland. There’s a responsibility to show respect for where you are, respect for the land and knowing that this isn't mine personally or my ancestors’. It's about finding the proper balance. 

That’s something I’ve strived to do at CSUSM. When I came here, I didn’t even know the university offered an American Indian studies major. My first American Indian studies course came when I saw it being offered to fulfill an upper division general education requirement. I was fortunate that my professor, Lara Aase, encouraged me to visit the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center on campus. That led me to meeting Joely Proudfit, the center’s director and the department chair of American Indian studies, and learning about the American Indian Student Alliance (AISA). 

I’ve had the privilege over the past year of serving as president of AISA, which was honored by CSUSM’s Student Leadership & Involvement Center as the Student Organization of the Year for 2021-22. I also joined Associated Students, Inc., as the representative for diversity and inclusion. In this role, I’ve worked to ease racial tensions and create a space where dialogue and conversation can occur.  

It has been rewarding to see so many different organizations, both cultural and religious, come together. We know that we won’t resolve every issue or problem, but acknowledging that we see one another and recognize one another is a step in the right direction. We try to focus on how we can help and uplift each other. 

My multiculturalism has been a tremendous asset in this work. It’s allowed me to be an ally for so many groups on campus. As AISA president, I’ve encouraged members of our organization to embrace and learn about other cultural and religious groups on campus. And doing so doesn’t invalidate our identity, it’s simply making space for others to also be recognized and seen, something that so many groups are fighting for on campus. 

One of the biggest opportunities we have is to continue fostering an environment where all groups have space to grow and be recognized. 

It’s something that’s a big part of where I am at now, too, as a person. I’ve learned through my higher education journey the importance of communicating your thoughts because, ultimately, we’re all trying to advocate for ourselves. And that’s an important lesson for everyone, because if you don't advocate for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you.  

Self-advocacy is a skill that takes practice, to be sure. But once learned, it allows you to better express your concerns, helps people hear you in a non-adversarial way and makes them more inclined to listen. And that's what will bring about that change that we all want to see. 

Media Contact

Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314