Inside USD

Ocean Leaders Scholar: Monica Cisneros

Friday, March 22, 2013

March is a national celebration of women and women’s history. This year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).” To honor this designation, Inside USD is doing articles to spotlight some of the inspiring female students on campus who can and do inspire others.

Monica Cisneros knew for a few years that the University of San Diego was her dream school. She admired the beauty of the 16th century Spanish Renaissance architecture that envelops the Catholic university’s campus when she was a pep band member at Hoover High School.

“We performed at games and in a field show competition when I was a 10th-grader. I loved that architecture and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I could live here,’” Cisneros recalled.

The flute she played, however, consumed more of her thoughts.

“Music is a really positive way to let out my emotions. It saved me in middle school and in high school. Coming from City Heights, there are wrong paths you can take,” she said. “Music has always been a positive influence. It helps me de-stress.”

Three years later, though, Cisneros’ dream came true. She’s attending her dream school, is nearing the end of her freshman year and, yes, she’s living on campus.

“It’s such an amazing feeling,” said the first-generation college student. “I feel extremely fortunate to be here. I remember being in sixth grade and I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to college. It makes me so happy to be here and to be work toward a better future.”

That future path opened wide when she was a junior at Hoover. She joined the science program run by Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI), a nonprofit organization that has built a solid community relationship within the schools in City Heights, a diversely populated, yet low-income area.

The ODI program, led by Executive Director and former USD Adjunct Professor Shara Fisler, engages elementary, middle and high school students in the wonders of science education and environmental awareness. For high school students, ODI gives them a chance to gain hands-on research and leadership experience in San Diego and Baja California.

“I used to think science was too complicated and I never saw myself that way. I was very intimidated,” she admitted. “Before ODI, I thought I’d do music the rest of my life. But when I went to Baja, being in the program changed my perception about science. That’s when I re-evaluated my plans for the future.”

Drew Talley, a USD assistant professor in Marine Science and Environmental Studies and ODI science director, was with Cisneros in Baja that summer. Seeing Cisneros’ transformation and interest in science was gratifying.

“What I noticed right away was this spark of curiosity and dogged determination in her,” Talley said. “Monica was naturally curious about the science of community ecology, but also about the broader culture of science.”

Cisneros’ transformation continued upon graduating from Hoover. She was named the third USD Ocean Leaders Scholar, a scholarship that provides tuition, housing and assistance through Marine Science and Environmental Studies. Funding is provided through the university and a National Science Foundation grant that was awarded to Talley and ODI. Current Toreros Yajaira Nuñez and Daisy Mercado were the first and second recipients, respectively.

“I know them both,” Cisneros said. “We get along and I’ve been able to ask them questions about the scholarship and their experiences as first-year students at USD. They’ve been really helpful, like mentors.”

Talley’s presence on campus helps, too. Cisneros’ transition to college started last summer. She participated in the Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program and helped Talley with his research.

“Monica worked with me on a study that examined ways to use the stable isotopic signature of the California killifish to look at how their diet changes as they grow,” Talley said.

Cisneros gave a poster presentation. She then connected with other new students in late August through Student Support Services’ (SSS) Summer Bridge program. Students moved into their residence hall early, experienced the academic rigor with sample classes taught by USD faculty and participated in fun and connection-building events.

“I know if I’d just come [to USD] on the first day of classes I would have been extremely intimidated. But I was here during the summer and many of my friends are from Summer Bridge.”

Cisneros’ growth as a Torero happens daily. She joined the Association of Chicana Activists (AChA) and Student Outreach And Recruitment Club (SOAR) and is learning to play piano. She’s still deciding between marine science and environmental studies as her major and she might minor in music.

Sarah Gray, a professor of Marine Science and Environmental Studies and Cisneros’ preceptor and academic advisor, is pleased with her student’s progress. Cisneros showed up early to Gray’s 7:45 a.m. class and utilized the latter’s office hours to stay on track.

“I’ve been most impressed with how diligent Monica has faced many unique challenges that come from being a first-generation college student and adapting to a generally affluent student body with few students who share her ethnic heritage or cultural/economic background,” Gray said. “I noticed her positive attitude on our all-day ENVI 104 field trip. I think her training, working long hours in the field with ODI prepared her well for field work in a college setting. She’s motivated and seems to have a deep passion for the ocean and environment. I think this passion and interest will take her far.”

Cisneros has another aspiration. She plans to apply for the Ambassadors Club because it allows a student to be a campus tour guide for prospective students.

“I want to do it because I really enjoy showing off our beautiful campus to other people who want to come here.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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