First-gen student delivers commencement address

Dulce Zavala

Dulce Perez Zavala speaks at first ceremony

As an undocumented student, Dulce Perez Zavala has always been aware of her status and how laws affect her. So, when it was time to choose a major, the 22 year old gravitated toward the Criminology, Law and Society Department.

“I have always been really aware of laws both at the state and federal level because, in one way or another, they apply to me in different ways,” Zavala says. “So, I believed that if I took courses in CLS, I would have an even better understanding of the laws and our legal system. Then, in my sophomore year, I took an introductory CLS course that really put my experiences into words and coherent concepts. I learned about the differences between law on the books, law in between and law in action, and it really showed me that the laws impact everyone in such disproportionate ways. It showed me that the inequality that I experienced was a shared experience amongst different people from all around the country, and that is what officially convinced me to select my major. As I kept going in my academic career, I just kept on learning about more and more injustices that happen to undocumented people, incarcerated people, juveniles, low-income people, people of different ethnic origins and the list keeps going. So, now, as I am about to graduate, I know that I want to continue doing research within the criminology field so that I can try and alleviate some of the grievances caused by our justice system.”

Zavala, who is completing her B.A. in criminology, law and society and psychological science, will share her story as the student speaker during the first School of Social Ecology commencement ceremony June 16.

The first in her family to earn a college degree, Zavala plans to pursue a doctoral degree in her quest to help re-envision the criminal justice system.

Her undergraduate experience included participation in the Dream Project Fellowship and the College Corps Program, which led to her work with the UCI Basic Needs Center, where she helped advocate for and support students needing access to basic needs. She also worked in the lab of Carolina Valdivia, assistant professor of criminology, law and society, where she helped research undocumented college students’ basic needs across the U.S. 

For her field study, Zavala worked with the National Registry of Exonerations, where she conducted research on cases of wrongly convicted men and women. 

“I was able to conduct my own research on the Walter Snyder case and I even got my narrative published on the Registry,” she recounts. “Through that experience, I was able to discover the part of me that wants to continue conducting research about the injustices in our communities.”

Zavala credits her parents for instilling in her the desire to pursue a college degree and reach for the stars.

“They never let me get comfortable with where I was at in life, and motivated me to strive for greatness,” she says. “I appreciate all of their ongoing emotional and financial support throughout the last 4 years of my life. I hope that I can further establish myself within the field of criminology so that I can prove to them and to myself that all of their sacrifices were not made in vain.”

After graduation, Zavala plans to take a gap year to travel, get fit and enjoy watching football. 

“I have been doing school since I was in Kindergarten, and I always had something going on in the summers, whether it was AP project assignment or summer school classes, so I feel like I need a mental break from school before taking on the responsibilities of a Ph.D. program,” she says, adding that she plans to pursue research on miscarriages of justice in her eventual doctoral program.

Meanwhile, she has this advice to offer undergrads, especially first-gen students: “Learn to be comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’ and be okay with admitting it to other people. It is okay not to know where the buildings are, it is okay not to know how housing and financial aid works, it is okay not to know a concept in class. When people ask what you want to do after you graduate, it is also okay to say, ‘I don't know.’ Being comfortable with saying “I don’t know” was so difficult for me. I was ashamed and that would keep me from asking for help, but once I got comfortable saying “I don’t know,” I found it quite enlightening and it helped me find the resources to find answers to my questions. It allowed me to ask questions in class and in office hours and, as a result, I began to get better grades. When I got comfortable saying ‘I don’t know how housing and financial aid works,’ I was able to reach out to different staff on campus for help and, as a result, I have had secure housing and substantial financial aid during my time here at UCI.”
Mimi Ko Cruz

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