Ethnic Studies

Meet Ethnic Studies Alumnae

Mara Chavez-Diaz
Class of 2004
PhD, Social and Cultural Studies in Education

Mara Chavez
"My Ethnic Studies degree has been a vital academic foundation and lens in helping me navigate my life as women of color, a scholar and agent of change in my community."

Awards and honors: Mills College Outstanding Senior Award, May 2004, Ethnic Studies Outstanding Scholarship Award, May 2004, Phenomenal Women Award, May 2004, National Dean’s List, 2003.

What are you doing now and what are the highlights of your achievements or experiences since graduation?
Upon graduation, I wanted to get some work experience because I was planning to pursue a career in law. I began work at the non-profit organization, Centro Legal, which provides free legal services to low-income immigrant communities in the Bay Area. I ended up working for six years with an amazing group of dedicated folks striving for justice in our community. At Centro, I gained experience in the legal field and also had the opportunity to work on increasing the college pipeline for Black and Latino youth in Oakland. I was given the opportunity to initiate the Youth Law Academy, an after-school program for high school students geared at exposing students of color to careers in law and helping them make college a reality. My work with students and family then inspired me to pursue a doctorate in education instead of law school. Thus, I am currently finishing my second year in the Social and Cultural Studies doctoral program in education at UC Berkeley.

How did your Ethnic Studies degree prepare you for your current position?
My Ethnic Studies degree has been a vital academic foundation and lens in helping me navigate my life as a woman of color, a scholar and agent of change in my community. The first and most important lesson for which I am forever thankful is the re-education that Ethnic Studies provided me as a young scholar of color. In order to know where you are going it is of the most importance to know your roots and history. The opportunity to gain a complex understanding of my history as a woman of color in order to make sense of my lived reality blew my mind. I will never forget how my first semester at Mills, I took the Ethnic Studies class, Raíces, with Dr. Deborah and how this class had a tremendous impact in forming my academic identity and knowing then that I had found my home in the Ethnic Studies program. As an Ethnic Studies student, it was both painful and emotionally draining to learn about the brutal history of colonization of our people and land but it also empowered me to understand and know my place in the struggle for justice. I gained a perspective that brought purpose and direction to my life as a woman of color dedicated to be an agent of change for the rest of my life. Thus, my four years in the Ethnic Studies program was a time of tremendous intellectual and personal growth that allowed me to deeply explore and reflect on where I come from, where I am going, and my purpose in life. Upon graduation, my degree has also proven to be essential in my work.

As an educator in the non-profit world and working with low-income students of color, my ethnic studies degree allowed me to have the historical lens to understand the ways in which our current education system works to disfranchise students of color. This enabled me to be able to better advocate for them and be able to see the value in working in partnership with my students and parents to help them reach their goals despite the many obstacles and challenges they face. Working with youth of color, it is important to have this critical understanding of the sociopolitical and economic dimensions of education in order to move away from deficit discourses and pedagogy that blames students and families for academic failure.

As a scholar in a PhD program now, my Ethnic Studies degree has provided me a theoretical framework and lens in order to be able have a critical understanding of how dominant discourses on race, class, and gender intersect to oppress communities of color. This is a valuable academic foundation to have because it has helped inform the work that I do now as a scholar of color working on research that hopes to work with and for people of color rather than on and against people of color. Entering graduate school with an Ethnic Studies theoretical framework has allowed me to more deeply engage the new knowledge I am gaining when it comes to discussions of inequity, racism, and justice in education.

How did being a part of the Ethnic Studies community at Mills change you?
In the Ethnic Studies community, I gained a new family. The phenomenal amazing team of women of color that make up the department provided a source of inspiration, motivation, and a support system while I was a student at Mills. Even now, I continue to seek their guidance and mentoring when in doubt. Now, as a scholar in pursue of her doctorate, Dr. Deborah and Dr. Melinda have been instrumental mentors guiding my path as I have embarked on this new educational journey in pursuit of my doctorate. In sum, I am the politically conscious and fierce agent of change that I am today because of my experiences and the relationships that I have formed in the Ethnic Studies community at Mills.

What life lessons would you like to offer to current Ethnic Studies majors and minors?
My advice would be to study hard but to also enjoy your learning process by taking the time to reflect on what makes you happy. Take the time to build relationships with your professors because they are a great source of support and guidance. And lastly, to always follow your heart and to dream big because it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get there; it is the journey and experiences that matter most.

What are your future goals?
My goals are to finish my doctorate program in the next three years and to utilize my degree to continue to push for justice and transformation in our school education system in whatever capacity life may take me.