Inside USD

Class of 2014: Denise Ambriz

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The University of San Diego’s Class of 2014 graduated in late May, but Inside USD is extending the celebration this summer with a series of feature stories highlighting some of our notable graduates.

When the countdown to University of San Diego’s 2014 graduation entered its final month, it was easy to get swept up in celebrations. Denise Ambriz, a sociology and Spanish double major, was ready.

She attended multiple end-of-the-year banquets and received awards and special recognition as a top Class of 2014 member. She smiled for selfies and group photos with her USD roommates and an array of close friends she’s made since August 2010 when the first-generation college student participated in the TRiO Student Support Services (SSS) Summer Bridge orientation program.

Reflecting on those happy moments brought a glowing smile to Ambriz’s face and a slightly nervous chuckle. But Ambriz quickly reverted to her focused and determined personality when she revealed the source of her drive and motivation, why she had a 3.83 GPA, why she was feted for outstanding campus contributions and why she’ll begin a PhD program in sociology at the University of Indiana this fall.

“One thing that keeps me motivated is my family, especially my parents,” Ambriz said. “Knowing they immigrated to the United States to give my siblings and I a better life, I want to fulfill that dream (a college education) for them. It’s motivated me the last four years to do the best I can. I’m the type of person who believes if I can’t give my 100 percent best, I’m very disappointed. I know if I’ve given my all, I’ve tried my best. If it works out, it shows that all the hard work is worth it.”

Giving Her All

Ambriz was active in MEChA (Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlan) and AChA (Association of Chicana Activists), including chairperson for the latter. She was a McNair Scholar, a USD Mortar Board member, Phi Beta Kappa and a student leader for Linda Vista Dollars for Scholars. She did study abroad in Florence, Italy and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She participated in University Ministry’s Search Retreat and Tijuana Spring Breakthrough immersion.

Her academic prowess grew once she determined her major path: “Coming in I had an interest in psychology, but I was open to other majors. I thought about math because I had done well in it in high school or Ethnic Studies. I knew I wanted to major in Spanish because I placed a lot of value on being bilingual. It was important to preserve the language and my parents’ language. Through Spanish, I could improve my writing and reading skills, and speaking.”

Sociology was a mystery until a friend mentioned it when Ambriz attended her first AChA meeting the second week of school.

“My friend started explaining it to me and she got so excited. I decided I should take a class. I took it with Dr. (Tom) Reifer and it blew my mind. Dr. Reifer has a reputation for being a very challenging professor, but he’s one of my favorites because he encouraged us to think critically. He was one of the first to say that you should question everything people tell you and question the way things are. That’s what I like about sociology. You don’t take things at face value. You go deeper and challenge it; you see that things are socially constructed and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.”

Passion for Reform

Ambriz’s sociology interests blossomed as a sophomore through the issue of immigration and immigration reform. The Tijuana trip had a personal impact. Consequently, she had a cousin deported who had immigrated to the U.S. at age 2. Ambriz joined fellow concerned USD students who sought its position on immigration reform. They asked for more transparency and support for current and prospective undocumented students.

“We’re all passionate about immigration reform and we felt USD needed to take a stand,” Ambriz said. “It might not be obvious to some, but USD has students who are undocumented and we felt they weren’t receiving the help they deserved. It motivated us to write a letter to (USD President) Dr. (Mary) Lyons.”

Lyons received the letter and signed in support of immigration reform. She met with Ambriz and other students. Lyons appointed a task force. The USD website now provides USD’s immigration reform stance and links to more information. Events, including a panel with a current U.S. Congressman, took place this past academic year. An Inside USD story appeared on USD’s website homepage and the Spring 2014 issue of USD Magazine had an immigration reform cover story.

“I’ve graduated, but I hope USD will continue it and that other passionate students keep it going,” Ambriz said.

Immigration reform sparked her research. She presented a poster at USD’s Creative Collaborations, “Double Consciousness of Undocumented Students,” on research she did with the support of her McNair Scholars Faculty Advisor, Michelle Camacho, PhD, from the department chair and professor of sociology.

Having faculty support from Reifer, Camacho and Greg Prieto in sociology and Spanish professors Kevin Guerrieri and Leonora Simonovis, meant a lot to Ambriz. But so, too, did her involvement as a McNair Scholar.

Preparing for Post-Graduation

The McNair Scholars program identifies and prepares eligible students for graduate studies leading to a PhD through research training and early scholarly experiences. Ambriz, who aspires to be a university professor, co-taught an Emerging Leaders class last fall with Karina Viaud, a USD graduate alumna and the assistant director for USD’s Office of Parent Relations.

“I like interacting with students and this was a great opportunity,” said Ambriz, who developed lesson plans, hosted discussions and assigned grades. “I was a SSS mentor my sophomore year and I liked mentoring freshmen. This class focused on identity formation. It was a great introduction for what it means to be a leader. This class had really bright and motivated students. USD will definitely be hearing more from these students in the years ahead.”

Four years ago, Ambriz started her journey. She credits Summer Bridge as a catalyst and SSS as a continuous support system she needed. “My closest friends at USD are those from Summer Bridge. We were together at Grad Night and it was fun being with them, knowing we’ve gone through this journey together and that we’ve seen each other develop and transform into amazing individuals.”

The McNair program has been beneficial for her academic growth and gives her confidence as she prepares for the next step.

“There are moments when you feel you’re not good enough and might not belong in that intellectual community,” she said. “I’ve struggled with this as a student of color. You think, ‘If I’m a minority (as an undergrad), I’m even more of a minority by going to graduate school. There aren’t a lot of students of color who go on and get a doctorate degree. I’ve received advice and support from (McNair Scholars Director) Shelley (Barajas-Leyva) and (Academic Coordinator) Ramiro (Frausto). I know what I’m getting myself into and I know it’ll be a challenge. But I feel intellectually prepared and I’m confident that my USD professors prepared me well for graduate school. I’m ready to start a new journey.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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