Graduation not just an end to studies but a triumph over adversity for UCLA students

By Letisia Marquez
UCLA Newsroom
June 09, 2011

Nearly 4,400 students will take part this week in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science commencement ceremony. Students, their families and friends will be celebrating their academic accomplishments as they graduate from one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities.

But for students Yannina Casillas and Imelda Plascencia, commencement holds a special significance. Both have faced and overcome immense obstacles in their young lives. Here are their stories.

Yannina Casillas

When Casillas, an anthropology major, started at UCLA four years ago, she was a nervous teenager with a near-death experience still fresh on her mind.

When she graduates Friday, Casillas will leave the university a confident young adult – and a Muslim convert – who has slowly put the violence behind her.

“I feel like I’ve made it,” said Casillas, 22, who survived a horrific shooting when she was 14. “I’ve done so much at UCLA, and I really credit the university with giving me the confidence to accomplish so much.”

On July 10, 2003, Casillas was in a car with her mother and brothers on the way to a soccer game in Moreno Valley, Calif. When they stopped at a red light outside a shopping center, an armed man ran up and tried to steal their car.

As Casillas’ mother tried to drive away, the man fired into the car. A bullet struck her mother’s arm and then struck Casillas in her abdomen.

The teenager didn’t realize she’d been shot until seconds later, when she looked down and saw a hole in her stomach.

Casillas started to pass out, but her family managed to keep her awake until they arrived at an emergency room. Then she lost consciousness and remained unconscious for two weeks.

“I lost practically all my blood,” she said. “I had to learn how to walk again, how to breathe, how to eat again.”

The shooting damaged her bladder, gall bladder, an ovary and her lower intestines. But Casillas persevered. A month-and-a-half later, she started high school.

Nevertheless, she missed school on numerous occasions, undergoing more than 40 surgeries to repair internal damage and eradicate scar tissue. Despite her slow recovery, Casillas said she never lost her drive to get accepted to a four-year university.

She finished high school in four years and was accepted to UCLA, becoming the first in her family to attend college.

Casillas admits she felt isolated when she first arrived at UCLA. During her first year, she made a few friends who were Muslim. Casillas, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who had been raised Catholic, became intrigued by the religion.

“After the shooting, I was really angry for a long time,” she said. “I was constantly looking for peace. Once I started learning more about Islam, it started to fill that void in me.”

“What Islam teaches you is that God loves you but that he will test you throughout your life,” said Casillas, who married a fellow Muslim student last year. “He will test you with pain, loss of loved ones and many other problems.”

“I now view these problems as part of life and that we should still be grateful and embrace life,” she added.

Casillas’ parents, who at first were apprehensive about her new religion, also recently converted to Islam.

“My mother said she saw the peace I had in my heart and wanted to experience that as well,” Casillas said. “My father loves how Islam emphasizes educating one’s self and asking questions, which allows individuals to whole heartedly believe in something and not follow it blindly.”

During her senior year, Casillas served as vice president for the Muslim Student Association. She was charged with overseeing the organization’s six community service projects.

“She is one of the people that everyone knows and likes,” said Antonio Sandoval, director of UCLA’s Community Programs Office, which oversees 24 community service projects and two student centers. “She’s committed to students and very passionate about UCLA.”

Casillas also has been active with the Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project, which tutors offenders at a juvenile detention center, and with Mentors for Academic and Peer Support, which works with middle and high school students in Watts and the Crenshaw district.

She has taught a Fiat Lux class at UCLA titled the “Muslim Experience at UCLA” and has spoken at Muslim conferences and programs about her experiences being a Latina Muslim.

Casillas also penned an article for La Gente, UCLA’s Latino student newspaper, about being a Latina Muslim.

“It was not hard to gain acceptance in the Muslim community since the Muslim brothers and sisters shared similar values towards family as I did and also because … they love converts!” she wrote.

This fall in San Francisco, Casillas will start the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, a prestigious graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for leadership in the public affairs arena.

After she completes the program, she hopes to enroll in law school and specialize in criminal justice law.

“I want to be an advocate for victims of crime and Muslims,” Casillas said. “The second chance that I’ve been given has taught me to truly cherish life and to give my utmost commitment and love to what I do.”

Imelda Plascencia

Imelda Plascencia has washed cars, made pupusas (Salvadoran hot-pockets) and refurbished old furniture, all in an effort to raise money to pay her tuition.

Plascencia, an undocumented student who isn’t eligible to receive federal or state financial aid, started at UCLA in 2006 as transfer student but would often interrupt her studies for a quarter or two to raise enough money for her college costs.

This Friday, Plascencia, 26, will graduate from UCLA with a major in Chicana and Chicano studies and a minor in education. She is thankful to an entire community of family, friends and other supporters who have helped fund her studies.

“I don’t feel that it’s just me that is graduating,” Plascencia said, wiping away tears. “It took a community for this to be a reality.”

Plascencia’s mother, Imelda Barragan, works as a housekeeper and waitress to help support her daughter. For years, Barragan also was saving retirement money because, as an undocumented immigrant, she won’t receive Social Security funds. A year ago, Barragan gave her life savings to Plascencia so she could continue her education.

“I want to use my education to be in position where I am able to support my family financially so that my mother won’t have to work in such labor-intensive jobs,” Plascencia said.

When Plascencia was 3, her Mexican-born mother and father came to the United States to work. For two years, Plascencia lived with relatives in Guadalajara while her parents earned enough money to bring their two children to the U.S.

At the age of 5, relatives drove Plascencia and her brother into the U.S.

“I just remember my aunt telling me to go to sleep and ‘When you wake up, you’re going to see your mom,'” she said.

Plascencia, whose parents settled in La Puente, Calif., and eventually divorced, excelled in school, but when it came time to apply to college, she didn’t have a Social Security number, as requested on college applications.

“I went crying to my school counselor, and she assured me that everything would be OK,” she said. “She told me to apply to college and that I would figure out how to pay for it.”

Plascencia attended Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, Calif., for three years and then transferred to UCLA. She applied to UCLA because she wanted to be a part of UCLA’s IDEAS, a group started by undocumented students to support one another through college and raise funds, and to major in Chicano studies.

Only a few quarters into her UCLA education, Plascencia again applied for legal residency, but this time, she applied using her stepmother as a sponsor.

A woman posing as an immigration attorney, who Plascencia later found out was only licensed as a notary public, submitted the application, which led to immigration authorities asking Plascencia to leave the country.

She returned to Mexico for a year while family and friends back in Los Angeles raised enough money to find a legitimate attorney that would work on Plascencia’s case. She eventually was able to come back to the U.S.

In all, it’s taken Plascencia eight years to receive her bachelor’s degree. While she is proud of her accomplishments so far, she is also anxious about what the future holds.

She can’t work because she’s undocumented, and although she plans to apply to graduate school in education, she’s not sure she’ll be able to afford it.

“I feel a sense of hope, that’s what keeps me going — and my family,” Plascencia said. “I see what my mother does every day for me and how she came to this country, and that gives me strength.”</p>

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