Jessica Alcala ’22 is headed to Northern Arizona University to pursue a Master’s of Education degree in counseling and student affairs after her journey through Dominican University of California ultimately steered her down a career path to help other first-generation students beginning their own college careers.
She leaves Dominican with a wealth of club and organizational experiences and so many connections to faculty, staff, and classmates who supported her. That was evident at Commencement ceremonies on May 14 when Jessica was selected this year’s recipient of the Veritas Cup, given annually to a Dominican senior considered by most as “a friend of the class.”
“There has not been one big ‘aha’ moment at Dominican, but there have been a lot of little moments where I’ve realized this is the place where I belong. This is where I met my friends and grew as a person. I went from being someone my freshman year who never talked and was super shy,” Jessica says, smiling. “Now I’m involved in so many different things. I’m not allowed to be quiet or hide anymore. My voice had to come out.”
That voice was heard in A Cappella Workshop, Jazz Ensemble, Music Club, Latines Unidos, the Honors Program, Penguin Ideals Club, ASDU, Campus Ministry, PRIDE Club, Siena Leadership Team, across Student Life and the Student Success Center where, as an incoming freshman from Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, Jessica and was inspired to become a peer mentor by Jessica’s own peer mentor, Maria Alvarez Pineda.
“I came in as a first-gen student and she guided me through the unknown territory of higher education. She is very influential on how I have developed personally and academically. Maria has been my biggest role model and over the years, I’ve just followed in her footsteps,” Jessica says. “She did so much for me that I thought there must be other students who may be struggling as incoming freshmen. That’s why I became a peer mentor.”
Jessica became more than that. Having competed with the Shadow Drum and Bugle Corps in Wisconsin weeks before enrolling at Dominican, it was natural that Jessica would want to major in music. But after taking an “Introduction to Psychology” class with Dr. Afshin Gharib and Dr. William Phillips her second semester, Jessica was inspired to add psychology as a second major.
The flexibility and friends she discovered quickly validated her decision to attend Dominican.
“Dominican was the only school I toured in person, and I fell in love immediately. I loved how small it was and everyone seemed so friendly and welcoming. I quickly realized Dominican was where I need to be. It was my campus.”
Soon Jessica could be seen all over campus. By her sophomore year, Maria, her peer mentor, became her roommate. And this past year, Maria’s sister, Laura, became Jessica’s roommate. In between, COVID-19 hit and Jessica’s role as a peer mentor shifted from face-to-face to Zoom calls.
“It was a hard time for all incoming students, and I met first-year student, Samantha Lo, and I saw a lot of myself in her. I think she saw a lot of me in her in a way. We had similar upbringings, and interests,” Jessica recalls. “She stuck to me and now we’re close friends outside of me being her peer mentor. I was glad I was able to be there for her in the hard times of attending college during COVID.”
It was during this time that Jessica’s career aspirations were shaped. In a “Junior Seminar” class with Dr. Leeann Bartolini, Jessica came to the conclusion she wanted to be involved in a fieldwork placement where she could connect with and help others. She then met with Sister Mary Soher, then Director of Campus Ministry, who suggested Jessica could pursue a career in student affairs. Sister Mary told Jessica to email Dr. Paul Raccanello, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, and arrange an interview.
“That’s how I landed my field placement. I was an intern for Student Affairs,” Jessica says. “It really solidified this is what I want to do.”
That internship connection led Dr. Raccanello – along with Jessica Frazier, Director of Student Engagement and TORCH Success Program, and Lylannie Ducut, Assistant Director of Student Engagement – to serve as co-mentors for Jessica to be accepted into the prestigious NASPA Undergraduate Fellow Program (NUFP). It is designed to mentor students from traditionally underrepresented and historically disenfranchised populations in an effort to diversify and broaden the pipeline of aspiring student affairs professionals.
Jessica’s new career path was taking form and it came with confidence.
“I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have had here. I definitely have moments where the imposter syndrome tends to pop in – like What am I doing here? Why am I in this space? – but I’m able to rally myself back,” Jessica says. “I recall waiting to have lunch with ASDU and (Dominican President) Nicola Pitchford in the fall. I was so nervous, and I had to remind myself that “I belong in these spaces. I fully belong in these spaces and I’m fully deserving and capable of being in these spaces.”
Though Jessica was one of four seniors given the honor of pulling the switch to light the campus Christmas tree last December representing the Dominican ideal of “Community,” it is another Dominican ideal “Reflection” that consumes her as Commencement approaches. It’s an emotional time thinking back to when she first met Giulia Welch, Director of Career Development in the Student Success Center and Jessica’s Integrative Coach, Matt Davis and all the other people on campus who have supported her.
“Giulia has been my second mom on campus, beside June Oh and the music department who I consider family,” says Jessica, giving a nod to June Choi Oh, Chair of the Department of Music, Dance and Performing Arts and Assistant Professor.
It all leads to everyone who impacted Jessica’s Dominican experience. It wasn’t a team effort. It was a family effort.
“Besides academics, Dominican taught me to be more confident and to believe in myself. I’m capable of so much more than I believe I am right now,” Jessica says. “I’m so glad I picked Dominican four years ago. All this would have been much more challenging at another institution. I’ve built so many connections here and I figured out who I am here. I can be open and truly myself. I can just be me. Dominican gave me the confidence and skill set to speak up for myself and go out into the world to create change.”