Campus & community, Campus news

UC student regent advocates for Indigenous community in admissions

By Sandra Messick

Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza smiling and holding a UC Berkeley flag
Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza’s journey from community college to UC Berkeley student regent leader had its ups and downs, but has led her to a greater calling. (Photo courtesy of Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza)
Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza smiling and holding a UC Berkeley flag

Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza’s journey from community college to UC Berkeley student regent leader had its ups and downs, but has led her to a greater calling. (Photo courtesy of Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza)

In mid-November, UC Berkeley student Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza went online to attend the UC Board of Regents meeting. As the student regent-designate, it’s something she’s done every other month since the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t a position she’d ever dreamed of or thought possible when she initially made her plans to go to college.

Last year, as a transfer student applying to four-year universities, she applied to Stanford University and UC Davis, which she liked because it was a quiet, but not too rural, area and also close to home.

She wasn’t interested in going to Berkeley.

“I think I was dismissing it because I thought I wasn’t going to get in,” she said. “It was also out of my comfort zone.”

But she realized that getting out of her comfort zone was exactly what she needed to do. Now, as a Berkeley and UC student leader, Zaragoza is working on initiatives to make the UC system admissions process more accessible to students of color, transfer students and students who come from Indigenous backgrounds, like herself.

“There are so many students who end up staying in community college for five, six, seven or more years,” she explained. “It just takes forever to get out.”

Zaragoza, 22, grew up in Patterson, in California’s Central Valley. She calls it “a little drive-by town” that “you’ve probably gotten gas” at. “It has the last Starbucks for 100-something miles. We’re very popular for that.”

Her mother, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was born and raised in California. Zaragoza’s grandmother moved there from Oklahoma as a teenager. Zaragoza’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, when he was 12 years old.

Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza smiling

As a UC student regent, Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza has given a presentation on the importance of accessibility in admissions outreach to American Indian and Alaska native students to UC board members. (Photo courtesy of Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza)

He had always dreamed of one of his children going to Berkeley.

“He would always take me and my siblings there,” she said. “He always said to me, ‘I just want one of my kids to go to Berkeley.’”

As she got closer to graduating from high school, Zaragoza didn’t think she would be the child who made her father’s dream come true. She hadn’t completed the subject requirements needed to apply to schools in the UC or California State University systems.

Instead, she enrolled at Modesto Junior College — an hour commute each way — with the hope of transferring to a CSU in two years. She settled in quickly and decided to study geography and political science, and got interested in the democratic process. “I joined student government and got really involved on some of their big transfer student initiatives,” she said.

Zaragoza noticed that many of her friends were caught up in what’s called “the transfer maze.”

“I wanted to figure out what it was that was causing the problem and how we could fix it. I was looking at state policy and federal policy. I did research, and I started to gain a bigger picture of what transfer looked like and why it was so hard.”

She applied and was appointed to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, where she represented more than 2 million students on 115 campuses, and she later served on the board of trustees for Calbright College, the first online community college in the world.

When it came time to transfer to Berkeley, there was one thing that almost got in the way of submitting her application, and that was paying the fee.

“The very last day, I told one of my co-workers, who became one of my close friends, ‘I’d love to apply to Berkeley.’ She said she would loan me the money, and I wouldn’t need to pay her back until I could. I ended up being able to apply later that day,” said Zaragoza. “When I got into Berkeley, I started crying. That’s how I knew it was the school for me. Who knew I was so invested?”

Zaragoza transferred to Berkeley in Fall 2019 as a double major in geography and political science. She had decided to put advocacy aside and focus on her academics, but that didn’t last long, as she applied to join the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS).

She was part of a subcommittee looking at alternatives to the SAT requirement after the UC Regents decided to phase out the test this spring. When COVID-19 hit, she and her graduate student counterpart were asked to draft the initial COVID-19 recommendations for admissions to consider, as life and academic structure for prospective students applying to Berkeley had changed drastically.

“We wanted first to make sure application readers are trained in the fact that students are now not able to take things like the SAT,” Zaragoza said. “They’re potentially doing worse in their classes and may have lower grades, or they might not have grades at all, if their school did that . Also, students had to stop doing their extracurriculars.”

carol christ looks at the camera

Chancellor Carol Christ spoke at a December 2019 Berkeley Campus Conversation about the need to re-evaluate an admissions process that prioritizes standardized tests like the SAT. (UC Berkeley photo)

Zaragoza is the first Berkeley undergraduate to serve as a Student Regent in five years. As the designate, who undergoes a year of training, she’s able to take part in committees and give input at the meetings, but won’t be a voting member until next year.

During last week’s regents’ meeting, she was part of a team that did a presentation on American Indian and Alaska Native student admissions and outreach. As a Native student, she knows how difficult it can be to find community and support on such a competitive campus.

Right now, Zaragoza doesn’t have plans to join another board. Instead, she’s thinking about graduate school, where she wants to continue examining political theory and diversity through the lens of spatial geography — how we grow into ourselves and the options and opportunities that we’re given.

She hopes her work on the UC Board of Regents will help make higher education more accessible and open opportunities to the large numbers of Indigenous people in rural areas across America just like her.

“There’s a specific part of the Indigenous perspective that I think is always hard for people to understand,” she said. “No one can understand the cultural impact of my family. I had never had anyone Native around me, outside my family. At Berkeley, I had all these people who understood. Every Thursday, I could go to the INC (Indigenous and Native Coalition Recruitment and Retention Center) meeting, and I had all these friends, and I had family who understood me.”