My guest today is Jessica Tovar. Jessica was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. at the age of 7. Her father worked mainly as a carpenter doing odd jobs while her mother worked as a seamstress. While neither of her parents graduated from high school, they always made it a point to emphasize that education was the path toward a better life. Jessica did well in high school and was put in college level courses but noted that she was only able to apply for college because she received fee waivers for a few UC and Cal-State schools. Jessica attended University of California, Irvine and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Sociology. Jessica faced the reality of being academically underprepared for college due to the limited resources of the high school she attended. She was able to catch up and succeed by reaching out for help. She was strongly impacted by the inequality she was exposed to during her college years and it sparked a passion for social justice work. Jessica went on to earn her Master’s degree in Social Work at University of California, Los Angeles to further advance her career working in public policy. Jessica is currently a Project Manager for the Moving Forward Network, a program at the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. Here is a little of her First Gen Journey . . .
In this episode, Dr. Hernandez interviews Jessica Tovar, a project manager working in public policy, about her First Gen Journey. She discusses how the inequality she experienced in college sparked a passion for social justice and creating change. Her parents didn’t necessarily understand her career path but they trusted her to make the right decisions for her life. Here are a few highlights from her episode:
· Jessica’s parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend school when they were younger so when they moved to the U.S. from Mexico they had to work odd jobs (1:19). They clearly communicated to their children that they moved to the U.S. to provide more access to education for their children in hopes of attaining a better future (1:54). Jessica felt some pressure to succeed but was able to internalize the goal of academic success and used it as motivation for her efforts (3:02).
· Because Jessica grew up in a homogenous community, she wasn’t aware of income disparities. It was attending college that really highlighted that her family didn’t have access to some experiences or material things (4:14). This experience fueled a passion for social justice and helping others succeed and access education (5:17)
· Early in childhood, Jessica dreamed of being a veterinarian but negative teaching experiences steered her away from science and math (5:59). Jessica credits her parents’ support and work ethic with her ability to succeed academically in high school. She also recognized the impact of teachers and counselors who supported her and provided opportunity (7:23).
· Jessica attended UC Irvine. She had a hard time with the transition because of the culture shock but also because of academic difficulties. She turned her struggle into motivation and it fueled her efforts to try to find the academic support she needed to succeed through college (10:53). Jessica found the strength to overcome her pride and insecurity when asking for help because she kept thinking about what her success meant to her family (13:13). She also started to build her confidence and recognize the systemic issues that made her less prepared for college (13:33).
· Cultural centers on campus also contributed to Jessica’s sense of belonging. She built her community by joining organizations like Mecha and engaging with the Cross-Cultural Center (14:13). Jessica’s participation in Mecha helped her develop her passion for community engagement and political awareness (16:14).
· Jessica describes her study abroad experience in Chile at University of Santiago and how it really helped her blossom (19:28). She negotiated with her parents regarding her study abroad semester because she had to balance what she wanted to do with what her parents would feel comfortable with (20:47).
· As Jessica’s career led her to different states and opportunities, she wasn’t always able to explain what she was doing or why to her parents (23:47). Ultimately, her parents trusted her choices.
· Jessica worked as a community health worker for Moms Orange County right after college but during the recession she was frustrated with the economic disparities and social issues that impacted the communities she served (25:12). She decided to pursue graduate school and received her Master’s of Social Work from UCLA. When Jessica transitioned to graduate school, her previous academic insecurities crept back up (28:11). She struggled with finding her groove again but after her first quarter, her confidence returned.
· Jessica currently works for the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College on a program called the Moving Forward Network (29:40). She didn’t know what being a professional would be like but is happy that she can do something that she is passionate about and that she can make a difference while making a good living. Jessica still battles with imposter syndrome and is uncomfortable with networking but she has found it helpful to focus on her hard work and passion (30:57). Fundraising with potential donors also brings its own challenges for Jessica (35:21).
Jessica’s tips for First Gen students and professionals wanting to work in social justice:
1. Recognize the importance of networking - anyone you meet could potentially lead to an opportunity so show up, be passionate about what you do, and it will be recognized.
2. It is ok if you don’t have an existing network - you can build one.
3. Be aware of your resilience and that you belong.