Transfer student gets national honor: Q&A with Diana Castro

At its Feb. 7-9 conference this week, the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students will honor UC Berkeley senior and transfer student Diana Castro, 22, as one its four transfer student ambassadors for 2017-18. A first-generation college student from Orange County, Castro’s transfer journey, leadership, public speaking, advocacy efforts and potential to share meaningful information with higher education transfer professionals led the judges to choose her to help the institute improve transfer students’ lives. 

Diana Castro is peer advocate leader at Berkeley’s Transfer Student Center. (UC Berkeley photo by Kirpa Singh)

Berkeley News spoke with Castro, peer advocate leader at UC Berkeley’s Transfer Student Center, as she readied for her departure to the institute’s 16th annual conference in Atlanta.

What does it mean to you to be honored with this award?

It shows that transfer students at UC Berkeley are a key part of the campus, which is really important. It’s a very big campus, and sometimes it’s easy to feel forgotten. Thankfully, those involved in programs that support transfer students are passionate about what they do and help create a sense of community. It is important for students to find a community that will provide support and guidance. I found mine at the Transfer Student Center, where I’ve been involved since my first semester here.

I’m proud to be a resource for other transfer students, someone who will give honest advice, share personal anecdotes and provide resources and opportunities they can take advantage of. I’m proudest that I’m able to be someone who transfer students can speak with about any of their struggles or achievements.

Castro transferred to Berkeley from Irvine Valley College in Southern California. (UC Berkeley photo by Kirpa Singh)

As a 2018 national ambassador, what will be your role?

As an ambassador, I’ll be active in dialogue during workshops and presentations at the conference about how to better serve the transfer community. Most of the conference attendees will be professionals who provide programs and services for transfer students, and I feel it’s important for them to have the input of an actual transfer student when thinking about future implementation of programs. I’ll also be interacting at the conference with other transfer students from around the country. I’m excited that I’ll gain knowledge that will help better transfer students’ journeys on the Berkeley campus.

Tell us a little about your background and educational path.

I’m from Santa Ana, in Orange County. I come from a pretty small family — my parents, one older brother and myself. I am also a first-generation Mexican American. I always wanted to go to college, but I don’t think my public high school took the time to present the idea of college to first-generation students as much as was needed. Even though the school prioritized higher education, it didn’t feel like college was easily achievable for many of us. It also was difficult to navigate the college application process unless you worked closely with a counselor or family member who’d already been through it.

Why did you decide to attend community college first?

In high school, I started out great academically. Midway through, I stopped doing as well and felt I wouldn’t be a competitive applicant if I were to apply to the UCs. So, I didn’t. I only applied to nearby Cal State campuses, and out of four I was only accepted by my “home Cal State,” Cal State Fullerton. But I’d always wanted to move away for school and knew I wouldn’t be happy at my local university as a commuter student. So, I decided to attend Irvine Valley College, a community college, as I felt it would give me a new opportunity to apply to my top choices within the UC system.

Why did you want to attend Berkeley?

“Transfers bring experiences and perspectives to campus that traditional students don’t have,” says Diana Castro. (UC Berkeley photo by Kirpa Singh)

I kept hearing from my Model United Nations team at my community college about how UC Berkeley had a great political science department. And the Bay Area is a great area to be politically active, compared to Southern California. It’s also great to be able to attend a school where people encourage you to pursue your interests.

What were your fears about attending Berkeley?

My biggest fears were feeling out of place and that I wouldn’t belong, since it’s easy to have imposter syndrome coming into Berkeley. It seems everyone is busy doing amazing things.

What was the transition like, from community college to Berkeley?

It was definitely hard to transition academically, as I was used to much smaller classes at community college, where it was easy to have conversations with professors. It was a new experience having lectures with over 100 students, and the amount of reading was much more than what I’d had in community college. Being new to Berkeley showed up in my grades during my first round of midterms. I received pretty bad grades and immediately felt I’d made a mistake attending Berkeley. It took a lot of discipline when it came to reading and going to office hours to finish the semester on a stronger note, making my first semester one of my best while here.

Besides academics, joining clubs and student organizations also was a big challenge. It seemed that every club I was interested in had a competitive application process. So, I looked into other opportunities that met my interests and received an internship at the Transfer Student Center. I also became a member of JusticeCorps, where I volunteered at the Hayward Hall of Justice for nine months, assisting self-representing litigants.

Was there a moment/time that you remember starting to feel more at home here?

I started to feel more at home once I got to know more people and was able to build friendships. Feeling like I had more people to talk to and experience Berkeley with helped me feel at home.

As national ambassador, “My role will be to be a voice for my transfer student peers,” says Castro, “and to vocalize what can be done to help.” (UC Berkeley photo by Kirpa Singh)

What advice do you give to transfer students who are struggling to acclimate to Berkeley?

I always advise them to ask questions and to not be afraid to talk about their struggles. When you let people know you’re struggling and ask for help, you will be amazed at how they’re more than willing to help you. It’s also comforting to know that you’re not alone, and that many other transfer students face struggles with acclimating.

Transfers are an important population to support because they have less time on campus than other students and need to take advantage of the opportunities Cal offers while they’re here. And, they’re valuable for the different experiences and perspectives they bring to campus that “traditional” students don’t.

With what you now know, what do you wish you’d known as a new transfer student?

I wish I would have known that you can’t come into Berkeley with a timeline or a plan that you made earlier. It’s easy to transfer in with certain expectations, but it’s necessary to be able to let go of them and make opportunities happen for yourself, and to venture out of your comfort zone.

What’s next for you, after graduation?

I plan on teaching English abroad for a year or so, then I’d like to attend law school in order to work within dependency law and serve children in the foster care system.