Lesson #1 – You are brighter than you think

I’ll never forget the day I logged into my UCLA application portal and the words “Congratulations, you’re #bruinbound” flashed in bold at the top of the screen. I instantly screamed with joy and began crying. I could not believe I had gotten into the #1 public university in the nation. I recall even logging out and logging back in to make sure it was not an error. I could not process that I had gotten into such a prestigious school with such a low acceptance rate. 

Just a week prior, I had released a stream of tears as I had been waitlisted at both UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. I feared I would not get into a University of California (UC) which I had dreamed of attending. I always had hopes and dreams of attending a school like Harvard, Stanford or UCLA, but I did not believe I would get in. When application season came around my junior year of high school, I recall checking the box for UCLA on the UC application solely because I had an additional application fee waiver, not because I was confident I would be accepted. 

Despite maintaining excellent grades in my honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school plus maintaining consistent involvement in various activities, I did not believe I would be admitted into a school such as UCLA. 

The high school I attended, El Dorado in Placentia, did not have college counselors or individuals readily preparing students to apply to colleges. Given the area the school is located in, it is pretty much a given for most students to attend college. For others – including myself – we would become the first to not only attend college but the first to graduate high school. This left many stranded in the process. Luckily, some were able to gain assistance through programs such as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and JOYA Scholars, but this was not the case for every single student. 

The next few weeks were full of joy and celebration, from my acceptance to wrapping up AP testing to high school graduation. I did not have time to think about anything but my excitement. 

Unfortunately, this high was not eternal as my anxiety and impostor syndrome took over. The weeks leading up to my move to Westwood were filled with endless panic attacks and an overwhelming sense of not being good enough for the university. To add to my stress, I initially entered with the intent to major in environmental science, but once it was brought to my attention that I would have to enroll in chemistry courses, I decided to switch, as the subject was my enemy in high school. During my orientation session, my peer advisor suggested I switch to geography as it would consist of courses about the environment without having to take chemistry. Despite never having taken a geography course in my life, I decided to take the jump and try it out. 

Lessson #2 – Take chances and don’t fear rejection

I thank my lucky stars each day that I made the switch. The interdisciplinary nature of the major has opened various doors for me and allowed me to explore many topics I found interesting and thereby blend them with my newfound understanding of space, place and humankind. 

Luckily, once I moved in, the initial feelings of impostor syndrome and anxiety that had haunted me all dissipated and were replaced with excitement, happiness and a yearning to meet every person I came across. 

I remember being quite shy when I first moved in. I had no familiar faces surrounding me. The main thing holding me back was the fear that nobody would want to be my friend, or that I would not be liked by others. Luckily, I found a core group of friends who I met as a result of a random “Latino Bruins” group chat I joined the summer prior to moving in. I have still remained close to them throughout the last four years. 

The fear of rejection followed me throughout the following year. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated it. Fortunately, I was encouraged to apply to research opportunities by individuals such as Dr. Juan Herrera, a professor in UCLA’s geography department. Despite my anxiety, I recall going into his office hours and chatting with him. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I made while at UCLA. Dr. Herrera’s guidance and encouragement truly made me feel welcome at the institution.  

I took another leap during my second year and decided to join Greek Life. I became a sister of Lambda Theta Alpha, Latin Sorority Inc., Delta Rho Chapter in Spring 2021. Just a couple months after entering Greek Life, I was elected president of the UCLA Latinx Greek Council which I eventually headed for two terms, from 2021 to 2023. Through my participation in Latinx Greek life, I have found that my confidence and ability to put myself and my voice forth have most definitely grown to levels I could have never imagined. Despite the constant stress that came with overseeing seven different organizations, I am very thankful for the opportunity I was granted to serve my community. 

Lessson #3 – Your voice matters 

The most rewarding experience at UCLA was my participation in the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute’s Policy Fellowship. I was blessed with the opportunity to serve as a fellow during my junior and senior years of college. LPPI has empowered me and transformed me into a powerful Latina leader ready to “tackle the most critical domestic policy challenges facing Latinos and other communities of color,” as our mission statement states. Individuals like Dr. Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, Misael Galdámez and Sonja Diaz have empowered and inspired me to continue working toward the advancement of this nation. I would not have the confidence I do today if it was not for their presence in my life. LPPI taught me one of the most important lessons: My voice matters, my story matters. These are assets and I must use them. 

On June 18th, I will cross the stage one final time celebrating my biggest accomplishment yet–obtaining two bachelor’s degrees from the #1 public university in the nation.

UCLA: Thank you for everything. I love you dearly. 

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Denise Ramos-Vega was born and raised in a small predominantly Latinx community nestled on the border of Fullerton and Placentia, California. She is the first in her family to graduate from high school...