Selina Jaimes Davila has been a high-achieving student from a young age and worked hard to graduate with high honors from Huntington Park High School, only to be rejected admission by four Cal States. Uncertain of her next step, Selina ended up at Cypress College pursuing a diagnostic medical sonography certification until deciding that she wanted to pursue a degree. After changing her major three times, she discovered a passion for mechanical engineering.
Selina is graduating with associate of science degrees in mathematics, physics, liberal arts in math and science, and pre-engineering. She is transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and later hopes to earn her master’s degree from UCLA. Passionate about helping others, Selina hopes to work in the prostheses industry and also aspires to become a STEM counselor for undocumented students.
“I have faced many challenges on my path to graduation: poverty, no transportation, lack of guidance, my undocumented status, coming from divorced parents, being a first-generation student, starting in the lowest math course, and not having a place to live at times,” she said. “No matter what, I overcame the barriers placed in front of me.”
Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? What are your interests? What is your story?
I was born in Iguala Guerrero, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when I was only 3 years old. Growing up in Huntington Park, California, it was difficult to find a sense of belonging in a place with different people, a foreign language, and a completely new lifestyle. Despite the tough transition, I have managed to adapt and strive for success. Throughout middle school and high school, I was part of the Honors Program and AVID Program. I graduated with high honors from Huntington Park High School in 2013. I am what you might call a “teacher’s pet.” I am also the first in my family to pursue higher education. In my free time, I like to go hiking and watch movies. I enjoy hearing other people’s stories and learning about where their journeys began.
Why did you choose Cypress College?
When I was growing up, my parents would work all day to create a better future for our family. They never had time to help me with my homework, and they never talked about higher education. In my senior year of high school, I got rejected from four California State Universities despite having a 3.9 GPA. I was devastated because I worked hard to get into a good university. Still, I believe everything happens for a reason.
After high school graduation, I wasn’t quite sure what career I wanted to pursue. I didn’t even know that attending community college and transferring to a university was one of my options. I first heard about Cypress College from my friend Janette, who was interested in the Diagnostic Medical Sonography Program. She invited me to visit the campus with her, and I said yes. After attending orientation, I took the placement test. I was placed in the lowest math level (Math 10), so I signed up for the math lab in the continuing education school on campus. After that day, everything fell into place.
I spent my summer at Cypress, Monday through Friday. In one month, I completed two math classes. According to Armando, who oversaw the Math Lab at the time, that was a record! After that month, I knew I had found where I was meant to be. I can’t say that I chose Cypress College; Cypress College chose me. I began my academic path here before I realized that this is one of the best community colleges in California. I thank God for always guiding me and placing me in the right place with the right people. My time at this school have been the best years of my life, because they enabled me to grow into an educated Latina.
What have you been involved in at Cypress College? How has your path unfolded?
During my freshman year, I was pursuing a Diagnostic Medical Sonography Certificate. I also began volunteering in the Radiology Department at the PIH Health Hospital in Downey. As a volunteer, I scanned the mammogram X-rays into the system, shadowed the ultrasound technologist, and walked the patients to their rooms. I really enjoyed my year-and-a-half spent volunteering there because the staff was incredibly kind, and I enjoyed caring for patients. However, through this experience, I also realized that I wanted to pursue something more than a certification. If I was going to school for about three years to get a certification, why not put the same time toward a bachelor’s degree? It took three years of trial and error before I decided on an academic path. I changed my major three times before finally discovering my passion for mechanical engineering.
As a mechanical engineering major, I love conquering difficult math and science courses. I have always enjoyed rising to a challenge, so the vision of being a Latina woman in the engineering field lit a fire in me. With a concrete goal in mind, I got to work chasing my dream of lifelong learning. I took the most rigorous calculus and physics courses on campus. When I proved that I could succeed despite being the only female in my engineering classes at times, it fueled my determination.
On campus, I have taken advantage of every opportunity available to me. Each educational opportunity has changed my life completely. First, the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) offered me invaluable academic guidance. I built a strong relationship with my counselor, Eva Palomares, and she supported me throughout my academic journey. Through this program, I ensured that I was on a successful academic path and made my transfer process easier and much more enjoyable. I also participated in the TLOP program at University of California, Irvine, where I got to challenge my fears and complete an obstacle course where I realized that I am a leader by heart. It comes naturally to me to take the lead when others can’t. It wasn’t easy overcoming fears or having to rely on others, but I learned that working with the support of a team makes things easier.
Next, the Puente Program gave me the opportunity to reconnect with my culture. It’s been 20 years since I left my birthplace, Iguala Guerrero, and immigrated to the place my parents call the dreamland. It earned this nickname because they believed that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Still, leaving my home country made me feel that I had lost my culture and identity. In Puente, I reconnected with my roots by reading Latino novels that made writing essays enjoyable. Having Dr. Therese Mosqueda-Ponce and Mr. Obed Silva as role models was such an inspiration. When I went on my first Northern Trip with the Puente Program, it opened my eyes to all my possible paths for transfer. In summer 2015, I was selected to represent Cypress College at the UC Riverside Puente Leadership Conference, which selects one student from each California community college. At UCRP, I was surrounded with incredible, educated individuals who had similar backgrounds and struggles as me. I didn’t have to fear people finding out I wasn’t born in this country. I didn’t have to hide my smallpox vaccination scar on my right arm because no one there was going to bully me for having a “Beaner Mark.” For the first time, I shared that I was undocumented and my peers received me with open arms and love. It was breathtaking to experience that sense of belonging and to know that I was meant to be there with my Puente Familia.
Lastly, joining the (STEM)2 Program has provided me with the opportunity to flourish as both a professional and a leader. Through the program, I had the privilege to complete a summer research experience at California State University, Fullerton, on physics education with Dr. Gina Passante in 2016. That experience led to my acceptance at UC San Diego’s STARS Program this past summer, where I had the opportunity to work in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department with Dr. Nicholas Boechler for eight weeks. These research experiences have allowed me to develop my networking and professional skills. Most importantly, I was able to get hands-on experience in the engineering field before transferring! On top of that, I was extremely honored to have Dr. Boechler ask me to continue conducting research with him.
Through the (STEM)2 Program, I have also attended national conferences like SACNAS and HENAAC, where I met STEM professionals from across the nation. I have also been able to tour the science and engineering labs at several different universities like Stanford, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Davis, Berkeley, and many more. The (STEM)2 Program’s annual university trips have helped me to explore my options and envision what my life will be like once I transfer out of Cypress. If it weren’t for this program, I wouldn’t even know that these types of opportunities were possible for me. Finally, through my role as a peer mentor for the (STEM)2 Program, I have been able to develop my leadership skills and serve as a role model for my fellow STEM scholars. I’ve received so much support during my time at Cypress, and my position allows me to pay it forward by mentoring other STEM scholars. I feel privileged to help and support our scholars on their educational journey because I know firsthand that being a STEM major isn’t easy. Overall, I have seen myself grow as an individual and become more confident in my ability to take on new challenges. I feel lucky to be able to give back to the programs that have done so much for me.
What are you most passionate about? Why?
I am most passionate about helping others by mentoring them. I have learned and grown so much these past years at Cypress, and I have been able to help others by sharing my story. I use my platform to voice the need for additional educational opportunities for undocumented students, especially those who come from low-income backgrounds. There are many students who live in the shadows due to their fear of being deported. As an undocumented student, I have to work harder than my peers because of the color of my skin and the stereotypes of my culture. We, “the undocumented,” are hard workers and we value everything we have. We make sacrifices every day for our loved ones. Even stepping out of the house is a sacrifice because we might not come back. We value having a roof over our heads, being able to have a shower instead of buckets of water, and a chance at an education that our parents and grandparents never had. My parents taught me to be humble and to appreciate what I have and our roots show us how to be luchistas!
Who are the faculty and staff that have helped you get where you are today?
Every step of the way, I have been extremely fortunate to have the support of my professors, faculty, and peers. These awesome individuals have encouraged me when I needed it the most, on the days when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even in my most difficult moments, they saw a potential in me that at times I did not see in myself. With that, I would like to thank: Jane Gross, Garet Hill, Christina Plett, Torri Draganov, Massoud Saleh, Dr. Brinda Subramaniam, Allison Gotoh, Dean Richard Fee, Anthony Hall, Laurie Morvan, Hoa Tran, Keith Vescial, Obed Silva, Will Mann, and all my professors for being patient with me when I didn’t understand the material and for helping me build a strong foundation in my education; Dr. Therese Mosqueda-Ponce, Eva Palomares, Ernesto Heredia, and Dr. Deidre Porter for their guidance; the STEM Staff, Yanet Garcia, Rosa Mejia, Lyndsay Madru, Mareena Morrow, Luis Miranda, Anella Aquino, and peer mentors for being my family; Lily Perez, AnnMarie Ruelas, Dee Sato, and Julie Angevine for always being there for me; Nicole Ledesma, for being such a great role model and being the sister I never had; Mal and Kay Bruce, for their scholarships and support; the LRC’s Gonzalo, Ally, Nancy, Dean Treisa Cassens and Veronica for helping me get my first job on campus; the Cypress College maintenance staff, for allowing me to stay late on campus and opening the SEM door for me at 6 a.m. the next day; and last but certainly not least, Dr. JoAnna Shilling and Marc Posner, thank you for allowing me to share my journey.
What are your immediate plans after completing your studies at Cypress College (at your transfer institution, in the workforce, etc.)?
My immediate plan after graduation is to sleep for a week straight! Then, I will go for a hike and spend time with my family and friends. This fall, I will be transferring to one of the best hands-on engineering universities: Cal Poly SLO. I worked tremendously for the last five-and-a-half years to pass all my classes, prerequisites, and recommended courses to be able to attend Cal Poly SLO, which only takes 5% of transfer students. I was in tears when I received my acceptance letter because I never thought I would be accepted to such a prestigious university. Cal Poly SLO’s motto of “Learning by Doing” is what caught my eye because I am a visual learner and learn better by seeing how things work rather than just reading about it. I am most excited to create and design things at their machine shop and for the projects I will be working on.
What are your long-term goals? What do you aspire to?
My long-term goals are to get my bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly SLO and master’s degree from UCLA in mechanical engineering. I would love to work in the industry building prosthetics to help people who need arms, legs, and organs. I also aspire to be a STEM counselor for undocumented students because I know first-hand the struggle of pursuing a STEM degree and it is not easy to navigate all the barriers undocumented students face. I want to mentor and provide guidance to students who don’t have representation in the STEM fields.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of graduating from Cypress College despite the obstacles I had to endure to be here. I have faced many challenges on my path to graduation: poverty, no transportation, lack of guidance, my undocumented status, coming from divorced parents, being a first-generation student, starting in the lowest math course, and not having a place to live at times. No matter what, I overcame the barriers placed in front of me. I joined programs, took two-hour bus rides, lived in a van with my mom, survived four years of math courses, studied at Denny’s or Taco Bell late at night, and much more to ensure that I would graduate with honors. I will be receiving an Associate of Science in mathematics, physics, liberal arts in math and science, and pre-engineering. I had to take courses at two different campuses to complete all of the requirements.
Of all these opportunities, the most significant occurred this past August when the president of Cypress College personally invited me to speak at Opening Day. At this event, I shared my story with 400 professors, administrators, board members, directors, and many other educated individuals. My speech was an incredible way to let all the people who have helped me along the way hear what I have accomplished. It was powerful to share the struggles that so many students must overcome to succeed in the academic realm. I received a standing ovation, and I was completely overwhelmed with the love and support I received after my speech. By far, the most rewarding moment was when professors approached me in tears and told me that my story had inspired them to improve themselves as professors. My voice emphasized the obstacles presented to Latinx undocumented students in need of support from faculty and administrators. By sacrificing my identity and taking advantage of that educational opportunity I have made a change for future undocumented students. As a future doctor of mechanical engineering, I will continue to use educational opportunities to break barriers and create positive and alternative pathways for marginalized student populations. I am also humbled to be the Presidential Scholar of Distinction for the Science, Engineering, and Math (SEM) Division. It is such an honor to represent my peers at graduation as a future Latina engineer!!
What one bit of advice would you give to current and future Cypress College students?
Always do what your heart desires, regardless of what other people say or do. Never give up, and fight for your dreams. Get involved!!! Take advantage of every opportunity you can. It will make your college experience more enjoyable and fun. Reach out for help because whatever it is you might be going through, I am sure someone else is also going through that. You are not alone!!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I would like to thank my family, friends, and peers for supporting me through my journey at Cypress. It has not been easy and I know I have missed many important events like family gatherings, weddings, baby showers, and birthdays because I had to study for exams or work on projects, but I appreciate their patience and understanding. There were many times that I felt like giving up but what kept me going was being surrounded by incredible, smart individuals that have the same dreams and goals as me. So, thank you, Nicole Ledesma, Cat Aburto, Amanda Macias, Junnior “Si Se Puede” Rodriguez, Carlos Magallon, Kevin Patel, and Chidi Ewenike, Marlene Vega, and my mother for being with me through my ups and down. Now, on to the next adventure!!