McNair Scholar Angeles De Santos-Quezada Reflects on Educational Journey

Angeles De Santos-Quezada poses for a photo at her graduation from the College of Social Sciences May 24.

Angeles De Santos-Quezada poses for a photo at her graduation from the College of Social Sciences May 24.

By Abby McConnell

To anyone who knows her, it’s no surprise that McNair Scholar Angeles De Santos-Quezada graduated with honors, with a bachelor’s in Political Science and a minor in Applied Research Methods. Politics, advocacy and education have always been at the forefront of her life. She grew up in Encarnacion de Diaz, Jalisco, a small town in Mexico, with a mother who emphasized the importance of intellectual enrichment and a father who practiced law and often discussed the likes of Plato, Socrates and Marx at the dinner table.

This background served her well, especially after De Santos-Quezada moved unexpectedly with her mother and three siblings from Mexico to her grandmother’s home in Concord, California. De Santos-Quezada’s mother is a U.S. citizen who moved to Mexico in her 20s to be with De Santos-Quezada’s father, and later decided to naturalize her children.

Angeles De Santos-Quezada, right, poses with fellow orientation leaders.

Angeles De Santos-Quezada, right, poses with fellow orientation leaders.

Leaving the only home she’d known and transitioning into an American high school as a junior wasn’t easy for De Santos-Quezada, from making new friends to being placed in classes as an “English Language Learner.” Being labeled ELL meant she was placed on the easiest academic track in her new high school, essentially retaking many classes that she had completed with honors at a private Catholic middle school in Mexico. De Santos-Quezada quickly became bored and frustrated, aware that this route wouldn’t get her to college, which had always been her plan.

“I wasn’t sure what to do, but when I told my mom what was happening, she told me I needed to advocate for myself to have my schedule changed. She made it clear that no one else was going to do it for me,” De Santos-Quezada said.

She set up a meeting with her counselor as soon as she could, and was on a college preparatory track shortly thereafter. For De Santos-Quezada, this was not only a lesson in the importance of speaking out and speaking up, but also firsthand experience of the disenfranchisement many non-native speakers feel when they enter the U.S. educational system.

SJSU graduate Angeles De Santos-Quezada plans to attend the University of Texas, Austin in fall to pursue a master’s in Education Policy and Planning.

SJSU graduate Angeles De Santos-Quezada plans to attend the University of Texas, Austin in fall to pursue a master’s in Education Policy and Planning.

“When I was about to graduate high school, one of my teachers told me that I was a ‘normal’ English speaker. I didn’t know I was abnormal! ELL students are often treated as less intelligent simply because English isn’t their first language. Obviously, that is discriminatory and also a false premise. When students are labeled in this way, they are put at a disadvantage and aren’t set up to succeed. I knew then there was something deeply wrong with the system.”

She loved SJSU immediately, in part because the Spanish architecture and diverse community reminded her of home. Freshman year held the allure of living on her own for the first time, but she was also lonely during her first weeks in the dorms. Her resident advisor was a huge source of comfort and guidance for De Santos-Quezada and was instrumental in helping her find her place on campus. The experience inspired her to become an RA, which she has done for the last three years. In that time, she has helped nearly 200 first-year students navigate the transition to college and take advantage of all that SJSU has to offer.

Advising students about the best ways to maximize their college experience while connecting with like-minded people is one of her favorite aspects of the job, in part because she can relate. When she felt most isolated at SJSU, she realized she needed to seek out clubs and opportunities that reflected her background and interests like she had in high school, so she began attending meetings via the Adelante Latino Task Force that later involved into the Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center.

“By becoming a part of the Latinx campus community, I was able to find my place at SJSU and thrive,” she said.

And thrive she has―in the fall, she is headed to the University of Texas, Austin to pursue a master’s in Education Policy and Planning (MEd). In her undergraduate career, De Santos-Quezada has also been named a President’s scholar, has published and presented scholarly research, studied abroad in Slovenia, and become an outspoken advocate of social justice and diversity programs for underrepresented students.

“As a first-generation college student, Angeles exemplifies the transformative power of educational opportunity and is already ‘paying it forward’ to help other students find their own paths to success,” said Dr. Melinda Jackson.

De Santos-Quezada credits much of her success at SJSU to TRIO programs such as Aspire, and of course, the McNair Scholars Program, which is specifically designed to guide underrepresented students in applying to doctoral programs. She also acknowledges her family’s unwavering support along with many mentors and professors, including Dr. Maria Cruz, Dr. Sergio Bejar Lopez, Dr. Vanessa Fernandez, Dr. Lilly Pinedo-Gangai and Dr. Jason Laker, among others, who guided her along the way.

“I am lucky,” De Santos-Quezada said. “I was able to stand up for myself and take advantage of the resources around me and connect with all kinds of mentors and programs. Not all ELL students are able to do that, and so they get lost in our educational system. Part of my goal in getting my PhD is to answer the question: How can we treat our differences with pride instead of seeing them as positive or negative stereotypes? All I know right now is that we have to change the system from the inside out.”

New College, New Dean: Graduate Studies and Marc d’Alarcao

Marc d'Alarcao

Marc d’Alarcao

As a professor of chemistry with 30 years of experience in higher education split between San José State University and Tufts University, Marc d’Alarcao said his favorite part of teaching is when he sees students begin to understand how new knowledge is created.

“Knowledge is always continuing to grow,” he said.

Now d’Alarcao will be essential in creating a new college at SJSU as the interim dean of the College of Graduate Studies, designed to support graduate students in a variety of ways, including in advancing their fields through their research, scholarship and creative activities.

“We have a very large graduate student population of about 8,000,” he said. “They deserve to have an advocate who is solely focused on their needs.”

Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs announced the creation of a new College of Graduate Studies in fall 2018.

“The creation of a College of Graduate Studies has been front and center inAcademic Affairs for well over a year and a half,” Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Joan Ficke wrote in a January announcement about d’Alarcao’s appointment. “It dovetails with increasing commitments to our faculty administering graduate programs, and to our substantial graduate students’ population. It also signifies our re-visioning what SJSU contributes to Silicon Valley and to the world beyond.”

At Tufts, d’Alarcao mentored graduate students, including both master’s and PhD candidates, and regularly involved students at all levels in his research. His work at both universities has focused on biological and medicinal chemistry including the design and synthesis of potential antitumor agents, and a study of insulin action by synthesis of molecules related to insulin signal transduction with potential utility as treatments for type II diabetes mellitus.

“The thing that attracted me to SJSU was the outstanding faculty and students,” he said.

He has been working to expand research, scholarship and creative activities since his arrival at SJSU–as a faculty member, as a member of the AcademicSenate, and most recently, as the associate dean of research for the College of Science.

“Marc is an excellent choice to lead the College of Graduate Studies,” said Michael Kaufman, dean of the College of Science. “He has deep knowledge of the university and great skill in leading transformation both within and beyond college boundaries. His thoughtful approaches to challenges and opportunities make him the ideal person to enhance and expand SJSU’s graduate educational endeavors.”

Aside from advocating for graduate students, d’Alarcao articulated a few other reasons the new college is essential to the university’s priorities. First, he said it will continue to enhance research, scholarship, and creative activity, especially engaging graduate students. Second, it will position SJSU to expand its doctoral offerings — the university currently offers a doctorate in education and a doctor of nursing practice. Lastly, it will serve as a platform to better highlight the extraordinary work of our talented graduate students, both for internal and external audiences.

“For graduate students, success often means excellence in research or creative activity,” he said, adding that many of SJSU’s graduate programs require the generation of new knowledge or other creative products as a central component of the students’ experience.

d’Alarcao received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts, during which he worked as a research assistant in microbiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He completed his PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, followed by postdoctoral studies at Harvard University under the mentorship of E. J. Corey, who would later become a Nobel laureate.