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I’m a Berkeleyan: Jose Magana on having faith in your journey, despite the turmoil

Graduating Berkeley CalNerds scholar was uprooted from his life in El Salvador and forced to flee his country as an undocumented refugee

Jose Magana posing at Sproul Hall
Graduating CalNerds scholar Jose Magana was uprooted from his life in El Salvador and forced to flee his country as an undocumented refugee. He overcame arduous life experiences to graduate from Berkeley this spring. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)
Jose Magana posing at Sproul Hall

Graduating CalNerds scholar Jose Magana was uprooted from his life in El Salvador and forced to flee his country as an undocumented refugee. He overcame arduous life experiences to graduate from Berkeley this spring. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Jose Magana. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

When I was 6 years old, I remember the ground shaking from a magnitude 7.7 earthquake that hit my home country of El Salvador. Thousands of people were injured, and more than 900 people died. Many others lost their homes, which were completely destroyed from landslides caused by the earthquake.

Families were displaced, and for many people, everything changed. Fortunately for my family, we were OK. But since that day, I have understood the struggles that a family can face due to natural disasters. It’s the main reason why I studied geophysics and seismology as a student at UC Berkeley.

I want to pursue a career where I can continue to understand seismology’s practical application for engineering analysis and designs — to help limit the impact that earthquakes and other natural disasters have on people’s lives.

While this type of career has always been my dream, my own journey to Berkeley was not easy.

Jose and his sister posing as kids

Jose Magana and his sister Jennifer Magana grew up in El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

I never wanted to come to the U.S. I lived a flourishing and accomplished life in El Salvador. My grandparents ran a farm, and my parents owned an office supplies store that made us a good living.

After I graduated from high school, I was accepted into the University of El Salvador, a highly-ranked university in the country, to study civil engineering. I was embracing a new journey in my life and living out my academic dream. I thought there was nothing that could bring me down.

But during my first semester, my father received a phone call that would change my life. The most powerful criminal gang leader in the country threatened to kidnap, or even kill, me and my sister if my parents did not pay a ransom. The fear and stress we lived with every single day was really hard for us — we did not feel safe.

My parents didn’t want to risk anything happening to us and decided to leave our beloved El Salvador. As undocumented refugees, in the summer of 2013, we traveled to Mexico to cross the border into the U.S.

We moved in with my aunt’s family, who lived in Los Angeles. Eight of us lived together in a two-bedroom apartment. My parents would eventually find us a home to live in, but this was a difficult time for me.

I left everything in El Salvador — My relatives, my friends and my girlfriend. My mom had to work long hours at a local restaurant six days a week. My father worked in construction, and they would eventually divorce after moving to the U.S.

My entire life, my entire world, was changing very fast.

Jose and his teachers from high school

Jose Magana with his high school ESL teacher Ms. Barzin (right) and her assistant Mr. Orozco (left). (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

I also could not even write a sentence of English. My English was so bad I couldn’t even go to a restaurant to order food. My cousins would often come with me to the store or to get groceries. And because of that, I had no idea if I could succeed and study in an American university.

So, at the age of 18, I went back to school for two years at Crenshaw High School in L.A. to learn how to speak English. Sitting in classrooms, I did not understand anything teachers were saying. I couldn’t ask or answer questions. I would just take notes and copy things teachers wrote down on the board.

It was really challenging, and many times I just wanted to give up. Nevertheless, my passion and hunger for learning would not let me.

My ESL teacher, Ms. Azi Barzin, really saw the potential I had. She was an immigrant from Iran, but also spoke Spanish. She taught me English and persuaded me to apply to college and pursue a science degree.

She really believed in me and played an essential role in my education, staying after school with me sometimes to help with my assignments, and she introduced me to college prep courses.

Every day she told me that I can go far in life and be successful. For someone I admired to really believe in me — it helped me believe in myself.

After high school, I began attending El Camino College. I graduated with honors and earned five different associate degrees in mathematics, pre-engineering, physical sciences, biology and general education.

Jose Magana at a graduation ceremony

Jose Magana (middle) celebrating his graduation from El Camino College in June 2019 with his cousin and friends. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

I transferred to UC Berkeley in fall 2019. I always thought a person with a background like mine could not go to a prestigious university like Berkeley. I was afraid I would not meet students who would look like me, or I would not have the resources to succeed.

However, for the past two years, being a student here has really helped me to grow as a geophysicist. My research aptitudes have been enriched, and I have learned so much from faculty and staff.

Jose Magana posing with other students at Berkeley's football stadium.

Jose Magana said he has created lifelong friendships. Here he is with other transfer students at Berkeley orientation in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

As a research assistant at the UC Pavement Research Center, I worked with Dr. Angel Mateos to study how traffic and climate impacts pavement. Through Berkeley CalNerds I was accepted into the UC LEADS program. This past summer I worked with professor Douglas Dreger from the earth and planetary science department to study the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador that originally sparked my interest in seismology.

I was able to study the physical characteristics of the earthquake and conduct a waveform analysis of the event. The research program was provided through CalNerds.

After I presented my findings at a symposium last August, I was offered a job that I have had this past year at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

My research with the lab is about earthquake aftershock sequences, and we are aiming to get our work published in a journal next year.

Sometimes I feel like I have been very fortunate to have these opportunities at Berkeley. But I always remember all of the hard work I did to get here.

There are thousands of people coming to the U.S. from Central America, and worldwide, right now that think they do not have an opportunity to succeed here. They might think their only option is working at restaurants or construction. But they also have the right to dream big, and obtain a higher education.

Jose giving a presentation with a powerpoint slide.

During the summer of 2019 Jose Magana spent time at Ohio State University doing research and taking classes. In this picture, he gave a presentation to the faculty and other Latinx students in the program. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

As a volunteer for Berkeley’s Raices group, I reach out to other Latinx students to let them know that although it is harder for us, it is possible to succeed at Berkeley. I also serve as the transfer student liaison for the Hispanic Engineers and Scientists group at Berkeley, organizing workshops to support incoming Latinx transfer students.

As a mentor, I try to let them know that whatever obstacles life presents you, you can still make the best of it and have faith that your journey will turn out fine.

Jose Magana with his mother wearing his graduation gown, and his sister.

Jose Magana with his mother (middle) and younger sister, Jennifer Magana. (Photo courtesy of Jose Magana)

The next step in my journey is grad school. I will be joining Berkeley’s graduate program in earthquake and geotechnical engineering. I hope to one day help impoverished communities and policymakers address the need for equity in natural disaster mitigation, and work to achieve equity in disaster preparedness relief efforts.

My parents are very proud of me.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to share my story because it’s kind of sad. I know these are the experiences that have made me who I am as a person, but it is really hard to talk about.

Nevertheless, I hope my story shows how diverse the Berkeley student population is, and that students from nontraditional backgrounds can also succeed here.