Ivy League-Bound Undergrad Aids Underrepresented Students

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When Jacquelyn Torres ’22 begins studying for her master’s degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education this fall, she will be back in familiar territory – working with and as an advocate for underrepresented students.

Along with her recent acceptance into the highly-regarded Higher Education M.S. Ed. program at the Ivy League institution, Jacquelyn has been hired as a graduate assistant at Civic House, Penn’s hub for civic engagement and social justice education. There she will draw on her background in advocacy, along with her experiences both inside and out of the classroom at Dominican University of California, while developing social and community engagement programming.

Jacquelyn is particularly looking forward to working with Civic House’s West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, in which Penn students work with elementary, middle, and high school students from underserved communities. She knows all too well the barriers many of these students face.

After struggling with selective mutism in elementary and middle school, Jacquelyn found her voice as a community activist while attending Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS). Her experiences as a special education student – and her observations as a first-generation college student who learned self-advocacy – fueled her passion for politics and education.
It all began with advanced placement (AP) classes.

“Being one out of two minority students, amongst 40 students, in our Advanced Placement classes made me question why this was the status quo when we had a majority Latinx student population,” Jacquelyn recalls. “This was alarming because this meant so much potential was falling through the cracks.”
Jacquelyn spent a year working on a report that identified barriers faced by many first-generation students in her high school. As part of this initiative, she surveyed 158 SVHS students about their education and then analyzed data from the school district to see the origin of this underperformance trend. She noted that inequity in school funding was one of the factors impacting the achievement gap, which is why one of her longer term goals is to enter politics in order to advocate for changes to public school financial models.

“If we truly want equality and to address the achievement gap, let’s make sure everyone gets the same quality education. We can do this by distributing money from property taxes equally among schools. It is no secret that schools in wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods are excelling because they have more funding to provide more resources for their students and teachers,” Jacquelyn says.

Based on her year-long research project, Jacquelyn worked with school administrators to establish a student district advisory board to give students an avenue to provide input to the district’s board of trustees. “I knew that it was important to create a way that would allow students to provide their opinions on matters that influenced them,” she says. Her efforts inspired other schools within the district to create similar internal advisory student boards.

This was just the beginning of a deep commitment to social justice for the daughter of immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico.

In addition to her year-long initiative, Jacquelyn also started a discussion around diversifying high school class curriculums through her senior project. She met with the chairs of various departments to discuss how to make their courses more inclusive of LGBTQ+ and minority perspectives. Earlier, she had bravely stood up against bullying and harassment while serving as vice president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Awareness Club.

“Education is the solution to hate because it helps expose students to different identities to develop tolerance and visibility. To stop members from being bullied and harassed with the throwing of rocks, it was important to focus on education as the key to changing the culture,” Jacquelyn recalls.

Attending college was Jacquelyn’s goal throughout high school. She started taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College her sophomore year despite, she says, having many doubters try to discourage her. She also sought and gained admission into summer programs at both Harvard and UCLA – experiences that nurtured her interest in politics.

When it came time to select a four-year college, Dominican was an easy choice as it had been at the top of her list for many years. Jacquelyn first visited Dominican to attend the graduation of her cousin Sandivel Torres '13.

Jacquelyn transferred to Dominican from SRJC and hit the ground running, connecting with faculty mentors, excelling in academics, and expanding her peer network by joining (and even starting) student clubs and committees. She was determined to squeeze every ounce out of her Dominican experience, seeking opportunities aligned with her interest in politics, history, and leadership — just as she did as a student at SVHS.

Her first semester at Dominican — the honors student maintained straight As while taking 24 units in her Political Science and History dual degree. She also balanced eight leadership positions and an internship while working on five initiatives as a member of the Associated Students of Dominican University (ASDU) — most notable a proposal to improve undocumented student support.

The following semester Jacquelyn took 27 units, spending 10 hours each week working as a student assistant for the University’s archives, continuing with the eight leadership positions, and serving as founding president of Dominican’s Model United Nations team.

As a member of Dominican’s Honors Program, Jacquelyn worked with the Student Honors Board and Dominican’s Diversity Action Group to advocate for an excused absence for mental health care.

A first-generation college student, Jacquelyn was inspired to focus on issues facing higher education after talking with her Dominican mentors. She credits Stacy Poe, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; Lynn Sondag, Associate Professor of Art and Director of the Honors Program; and Lylannie Ducut, Assistant Director of Student Engagement, for inspiring her to pursue a career in higher education.

Sondag praises Jacquelyn’s collaborative and leadership skills when planning and executing successful and creative strategies to address issues she and her classmates hold valuable.

“The initiative engaged faculty and staff in a collective conversation on how we can support students and create more awareness and support of their mental health,” Sondag says. “This resulted in a collective conversation and workshop with faculty, Director of Accessibility, and the Diversity Action Group, who drafted recommended language for the university’s syllabus template.”

While serving in two roles simultaneously on ASDU, Jacquelyn wrote a proposal that established the framework for institutional scholarships that directly support undocumented students. As an intern with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), she updated information about scholarships and resources for first-generation, undocumented students, LGBTQ+ students, students with disability and accessibility difficulties, foster students, and veteran students. This spring, Jacquelyn participated as a panelist in the office’s “I Belong Here” series, in which DU faculty, staff, and students share their lived experiences in order to increase the Dominican community’s awareness and understanding of its members.

Jacquelyn currently works in the community as a teacher’s aide for the Canal Alliance Adult Education English as a Second Language program. She sees the value education provides to help open up more opportunities for students while helping them escape from the cycles of poverty. During her two years at Dominican, Jacquelyn has written five higher education proposals, founded two clubs, and served in 16 leadership positions. Her standout leadership was recognized through being awarded the 2021 Dominican Outstanding RSO Officer award and the American Association of University Women Award.

 As the Student Honors Board representative for the School of Liberal Arts and Education, Jacquelyn works closely with faculty mentor Sondag.

“Jacquelyn has an ability to uphold kindness and openness in situations that reflect differences of opinion and perspectives,” Sondag says. “We not only appreciate her inquiry and engagement with the issues, but also her positive influence on others.”

After graduate school, Jacquelyn’s goal is to enter politics to continue her work focused on the educational achievement gap.

“Growing up I decided that rather than having stereotypes determine my destiny, I would take the power over my life story and continue to break the limits imposed on me by birth.”

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