Rangel Zarate, doctorate in educational leadership, and Barbara Dennel Alegria, education specialist degree in school psychology, were honored as the James R. Watson and Judy Rodriguez Watson College of Education’s outstanding graduates in its Class of 2023, which held its commencement exercises on May 20,at the Toyota Arena in Ontario.

Zarate, from San Bernardino, is a tenure-track professor of English at San Bernardino Valley College. After working as an adjunct instructor and several higher education institutions in the region, and up to then, three years of experience working with college students followed by seeing the long-standing systemic inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Zarate said, “I realized that it was my social responsibility to do the work of learning about innovative ways to advance racial equity, cultivate a culture of care for a campus community and ultimately be a prominent leader in higher education.”

He pursued the topic of his dissertation, “From the Lens of (In)visibility: A Photovoice Inquiry Into How Community Colleges Can Advance Filipino/a/x American Student Resilience,” beginning in his second year in the doctoral program. Zarate identifies as Mexican American and Filipino American, but had not studied or understood much about his Filipino American heritage, “especially within the context of navigating my own college experiences. A lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) mentors, as well as a lack of a sense of belonging and culturally specific experiences that were more nuanced than I had ever stopped to think about were ever-present when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at CSUSB.”

Along with the animus displayed against the AAPI community during the pandemic that included physical violence, “it made increasingly more sense for me to develop a project that worked to champion for our AAPI community, specifically our FilAm students affected by race-based stress and racial trauma,” Zarate said. And as a photographer, “an arts-based research methodology through photovoice was ideal to bring visibility back to Filipino Americans and empower them through their narratives.”

His work, presented at the California State University Student Research Competition, held April 26-28, earned him second place in the Graduate Education category. Also, some of his work will become a chapter in a forthcoming book, “Healing in While Studying: Reflections and Strategies for Healing, Coping, and Liberation of Graduate Students of Minoritized Identities.” And he plans to take the work and present it at several conferences such as the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE) or Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).

He credits Karen Escalante, assistant professor of education and his Holmes Scholar mentor, as his “single most important faculty member” in the program. “She got me excited about being a doctoral student and a researcher which I would never have thought would be a something I would have a passion for,” he said.

And his parents have been “monumental in inspiring me in every aspect of my life,” Zarate said. In his first year in the doctoral program, his father, Marino, was diagnosed with leukemia, which presented a hardship for the family because they could not visit his father in the early months of the pandemic. He is now in remission. Last year, his mother, Silvia, was diagnosed with cervical stenosis. Though both are educators, they encouraged Zarate to pursue his passion. “In addition to their numerous sacrifices throughout their lives in order to provide for me and give me the life I have today, they taught me that anything can be accomplished in this life if you have passion and I follow this to this day,” he said. “I am so grateful for their unconditional love and opportunities, which they have given me.”

And he’s also grateful to CSUSB. “I have had many opportunities to work and go to school outside of the Inland Empire,” he said. “But I always say that the stars aligned for me because despite the struggles we had at home during the past couple of years, I was able to stay close to my parents, take care of them and enjoy my time with them, receive a tenure-track position, all while still being able to receive my doctoral education at an esteemed institution as CSUSB. Thank you to CSUSB for making me a proud Yotie!”

Alegria, from the city of Orange, is the first in her family to earn a college degree, and plans to become a school psychologist, and eventually pursue a doctorate degree. She decided to pursue her degree in educational psychology after watching her mother take care of children as a nanny.

“I think that’s where my passion for children began, and I knew that working with children would be my purpose in life,” she said. “Working with children is such a rewarding feeling, from handling challenging situations, to building positive relationships, to seeing their growth firsthand, it’s such a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of. When exploring all the different types of careers in education, school psychology stood out to me the most. My goal in life has always been to have a positive impact in children’s lives. I have always wanted to provide children the support and guidance that they need to succeed in life.”

While pursuing her master’s degree, Alegria was part of a research team led by Roderick O’Handley, assistant professor in the school psychology program and her mentor, that focused “on children with autism and the effectiveness of evidence-based social skills interventions in school settings,” she said. “I was fortunate to have had the opportunity of presenting our research poster at the California Association of School Psychologists, Meeting of the Minds and the Watson College of Education Research and Scholarship Symposium. We were also winners of best poster presentation for the Annual ‘Meeting of the Minds’ Student Research Symposium for the Watson College of Education.”

Being a first-generation college student was challenging, Alegria said. “I had to figure out the entire college experience on my own. I’m sure I can relate to many first-generation students. It’s not easy going to college, and it definitely isn’t easy when you feel lost along the way. ... I’m glad I asked for help, I’m glad I did my own research, and I’m glad I kept pushing, because it got me where I am today.”

She credits her strong support network that includes O’Handley, her family, fiancé, and her classmate and friend, Alexandria Schmidt. “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Alegria said. “From late nights, to days of feeling self-doubt, to days of being overwhelmed, my family and fiancé have always reminded me of how dedicated I am. They encouraged me to keep pushing even when things got rough. Because without a struggle, the finish line wouldn’t feel as rewarding. My classmates feel more like family now. We’re a strong cohort and always build each other up.”

Of her parents, she said, “As a first-generation college student, my goal was always to make my family proud. My parents sacrificed so much in order to live a better life and brighter future. I know it wasn’t easy. I wanted to show them that their sacrifices were noticed, appreciated, and worth it. That it paid off and that their purpose of migrating to another country was met.”

And she pointed to the positive energy at CSUSB and in the educational psychology program. “There’s something about CSUSB, the school and program encompass such positive energy,” Alegria said. “The faculty in this program have a passion for this field and were always willing to consult with students after class or during office hours. Having passionate professors really motivate and excite us to enter the field of school psychology.”