Latinos Unidos Club Alumnae Establish First Gen Scholarship

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For Erika Rosales-Shelfo ’17 and Maria Alvarez Pineda ’20, their undergraduate years at Dominican University of California were transformative. So much so that the alumnae, who met through Dominican’s Latinos Unidos club and now are colleagues at an immigration consultancy, were inspired to establish a scholarship for first-generation students.

For Maria, her experiences studying abroad and working on research alongside faculty mentors prepared her for the rigors of graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she recently earned her Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in Global Health and Environment.

 For Erika, numerous leadership roles in student organizations and honor societies, as well as the insight and experiences gained while traveling with faculty and staff to Croatia, France, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, and El Salvador, helped inspire her career goals and her strong focus on community.

Today, Erika is the owner of E.R.S. Immigration Services, which focuses on guiding clients through services such as family petitions, work permits, asylum packages, and naturalization. Maria recently joined the expanding company.

The idea for a scholarship grew when Erika and Maria were reminiscing about their time at Dominican.

“When I joined the team, Erika told me how she wanted to give back to her community by helping students,” Maria says. “We discussed different ideas and decided it would be great to give back to students who are at the institution we both attended. I told Erika about my experience as a first-gen student and all the hardships that came with that and she thought it would be a great idea to cater this scholarship to first gen students.”

“The First-Generation Scholarship Fund will help those striving to get an education but fear that money is an obstacle,” Erika adds. “We want students to be in school and not have to worry too much about the financial aspect. I want them to enjoy their college years as much as possible.”

Maria said that navigating the college process became challenging back when she was still a student at Vintage High School in Napa.

“I did not know how to go about applying to colleges and scholarships. I remember moving to college was difficult because, even though I was close to home, it was hard leaving my family since we were not used to this. It was an emotional roller coaster. I did not know what to expect. I felt lost. I did not know where to go or what to do. I was especially worried about finances.”

Maria, a double major in Global Public Health and Psychology, was fortunate to receive financial support from several scholarships/grants, including the Sandy Peeple’s Scholarship.

“Having these scholarships helped me enjoy my DU experience because I did not have to worry about not having enough money for housing and food.”

Maria excelled in Dominican’s Global Public Health program and remains in contact with her faculty mentors. She worked as a TA for Dr. Michaela George’s Applied Biostatistics and Research Methods classes. Dr. Brett Bayles invited her to do research with him on vector-borne diseases in Costa Rica. Maria co-presented the team’s work at the American Geophysical Union and co-authored published research.

“Dr. Bayles gave me the opportunity to be a co-author on the paper for the research I assisted him with,” she recalls. “It felt amazing graduating from Dominican with a publication as a co-author.”

Now, Maria is excited to be paying it forward.

“I hope current first-gen students are able to feel less stressed about finances with this scholarship opportunity. As a college alum, I know every dollar greatly contributed to both my physical and mental health. I hope this scholarship helps first-gen students have a more pleasant college experience as much as scholarships that I had helped me.”

Erika transferred to Dominican from College of Marin to study for dual majors in political science and history with a pre-law minor.

“I was drawn to Dominican for its ratio of teacher-to-students. I personally needed a University that had small classes, campus, and that was local,” she recalls.

The personalized attention began her first day on campus, when Erika’s history advisor, Sr. Patricia Dougherty, walked Erika to her first class. Meanwhile, Political Science advisor, Alison Howard, would frequently check in with Erika.

Erika quickly became a central figure in the Dominican community, serving as Vice President of Latinos Unidos and embracing other leadership roles on campus. Her senior year, Erika was an ASDU Senior Class Senator, Latinos Unidos President, and a member of the Siena Leadership Team, the Dominican Political Science Association, and the Dominican History Association. She also worked as a Model United Nations of the Far West delegate and was a member of the Phi Alpha Theta Honors Society.

“My advice to students at the initiation of a new school year/semester is to explore and get involved with extracurricular activities on campus,” Erika says. “The people you meet at any given event, club, etc. become your friends during your academic tenure and post-graduation. Let the networking begin early on.” 

“Dominican allowed me to grow not only as a student but also professionally through internships related to my future career goals. I did not know how beneficial this would be in the long run. Today, five years after having done my internship with New Beginnings Law Center, I am the chair for the Immigration Post Conviction Relief Project.”

Erika says that immigration became a passion after writing her senior thesis on the mass repatriation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans in the Early 1930s.
“Even though years have passed, the abundance of people that were affected by the events that occurred due to the lack of immigration laws set in place at the time, made me want to help immigrants today,” she says. “After working for three local immigration law firms, I decided that I wanted to venture out on my own as an immigration consultant and E.R.S. Immigration Services was developed.”

Just as she was at Dominican, Erika remains passionate about helping her community in Marin County,  serving on the board for the San Rafael Evening Rotary Club – she was Rotarian of the Year for 2019/2020 – while also serving on the board for Latinas in Power and working as the Chair of New Beginnings Law Centers Immigration Post-Conviction Relief Project.

Maria also was heavily involved with campus clubs – including serving on the Siena Leadership Team for seven semesters and as president of LU for one year. She echoes Erika’s advice about networking while reminding students to make sure they take care of themselves at the same time.

“It is so important to take care of yourself (both physically and mentally) so make sure to carve some time to do something that rejuvenates you (at least once a week),” Maria says. “Take advantage of the resources provided to you. There are many resources DU provides (like tutoring and counseling). Find out about resources – by asking your peers or inquiring about them to staff members and take advantage of those resources that are available to you.”

Photo above of Maria Alvarez Pineda '20 (left) and Erika Rosales-Shelfo '17




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