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Alumni Spotlights

Emelyn de la Pena

Spotlight on Emelyn A. dela Peña, Revelle '95, Ed.D. '09

Ethnic Studies and Education




Tell me about your career.

Currently, I am the Assistant Dean of Student Life at Harvard University.  My primary responsibilities are around gender and sexuality initiatives of the campus, along with advising the undergraduate council, and unrecognized student organizations.  I'm also responsible for staff training and development.  What I enjoy most is being an advocate for students who have historically felt as if they had no voice on campus.  I've met some incredible students in just a few short weeks, and I'm so excited to be able to continue working with them to make some positive impacts at Harvard.  I also enjoy having the ability to bring new perspectives on diversity work to the university. I am responsible for a diversity series for the office, and today, for example, we had a student speaker on Intersex issues.  It was really great to see the interest around this topic, the great questions they asked, and the feeling that I had brought to the table a topic that almost everyone at the discussion was unfamiliar with.

What is your favorite UCSD memory?

My favorite UCSD memory is the little Mac Classic computer that I used to write my ethnic studies papers, which actually belonged to another ethnic studies student, Jennifer Craig.  Prior to borrowing it, I was typing papers on a Brother typewriter!  I feel so old saying that!  We carried it around in a canvas bag like it was a portable computer!  In a way, I guess it was, since it was so small.  But it certainly wasn't as light as the laptops we have today. And of course, we had to save our document every 5 minutes, just in case that little bomb appeared on the screen.  I had the greatest conversations, laughter, and frustrations writing papers with the Mac Classic.  I think it may have had 4 MB of RAM!

What is one thing that you learned at UCSD that has helped you in your career?

I think the most valuable thing that I have learned is that social justice work is deliberate.  It won't happen by accident or on its own.  And it won't happen simply with good leadership.  As an administrator, I can't tell you how many training sessions I've attended where the training basically implies that if you're a good leader who treats everyone well, those from marginalized backgrounds will feel valued as well.  And while I think it's a great goal to treat everyone with dignity and respect and to have everyone feel valued, I firmly believe that social justice practice has to be on purpose.  It cannot come about as a byproduct of other good work.  It has to be good work in and of itself.

What social science issue concerns you the most?

I think what concerns me most right now is the fate of majors such as ethnic studiesand critical gender studies.  In the past few years I've been pretty active on financial message boards and reading financial and money blogs.  So much of the advice around education is to find a "practical" major that will yield a job at the end of your undergraduate career.  I know that I have a lot of cousins, aunts, and uncles who think about this for their own college-aged children.  They want to make sure that they are financially secure, and now is not the time to "experiment" with a major that is not marketable.  I know that my mother was very concerned about that for me.  But I was lucky that I graduated at a time when jobs were abundant, and I found my career path in higher education. I'm afraid that as the fiscal climate of the country gets worse, students will shy away from these types of majors, thinking that they can't get a job with such a degree.  I would hope that places like career services and academic advising are doing what they can to help students who are interested in this subject matter to explore many career opportunities.  I think it would be great to see a listing of ethnic studies graduates from the inception of the program and what they are doing today.

What advice do you have for current students or other alumni?

I think that so many students (and perhaps alumni) are looking for direct applications of their majors to their careers.  It may lead to a lot of unhappy people when they end up in a job or career that isn't specifically social justice related.  My advice is to find the ways you can be true to yourself and your values in a variety of careers.  Be open-minded to the possibilities.  I know that I was really lucky to have been able to work for 11 years at the UCSD Women's Center.  But now as an Assistant Dean, I have to be even more deliberate in finding ways to practice social justice in what I do.  Whether it is supporting marginalized students or advising an organization that may be doing things that are exclusionary.  I had the same experience when I first got out of college and was working in residence life.  My education helped inform my everyday practice, even if my major wasn't directly related to my job. You can make a difference wherever you are.

Alumni Spotlights

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