I spoke with Sarah Acosta, the Office for Graduate Diversity’s program coordinator, to learn more about her dedication to fostering an open and supportive community for all graduate students, and to learn about her journey to Cal, and why she can’t leave this time.
Sarah assists with the coordination programs and events such as Graduate Diversity Day, the Getting into Graduate School (GiGS) mentoring program, and STEM-FYI, and also helps provide a safe space for underrepresented graduate students.
Marie Claire: How did you find yourself at Berkeley?
Sarah Acosta: I first came to the Bay Area as a first-year undergraduate student. I’m from L.A. originally. But I found myself really hating it here, and I actually ended up withdrawing.
I’m from a part of L.A. that is, at least when I was growing up, about 98 percent Latinx, and the other two percent were typically Chinese. There was major culture shock that I was not prepared for. People were always talking about how hard it would be academically. So I think I was prepared for that. But I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock as a freshman. I come from a working class family, so I had no idea what the Educational Opportunity Program was. I had no idea all of the resources that existed here. So I withdrew, attended community college and then came back to Berkeley to finish my degree. Since then I haven’t left…
So, how did I find myself at Berkeley this time? I did a fellowship through UC Berkeley that was a college access program: Destination College Advising Corps (DCAC). And after that, with the major support of the folks there, I did my Master’s degree at Harvard in higher education. And, that was when I realized that all the things I experienced as a first gen underrepresented scholar at Berkeley, I was experiencing as a graduate student. That was the first time I thought about student support services for graduate students.
That was when I thought, “Maybe I want to work with graduate students in my pursuit of education.”
MC: There’s a role of compassion that seems to play into your experiences, your desire to ease other people’s experiences. What exactly did you study in school?
SA: See, I first went to Cal to study Psychology because I wanted to be a school psychologist, and then went to Harvard for Higher Education and Student Support Services. My focus has always been really about student support services and college access — especially college access through the lens of life support.
MC: Tell me a little bit about your position here at Cal. What exactly are the types of resources that you provide to graduate students?
SA: I’m new. I’ve been here for about three months, and I’m still learning a lot of what this position is. We’re constantly trying to evolve to meet students’ needs.
One of the longstanding programs here is the GiGS program (Getting into Grad School). And that’s a two-parter. It supports undergraduate students who are historically marginalized and underrepresented in higher ed. It encourages them to think about graduate school. And the difference between this and perhaps a McNair program or others is that there is no GPA cap. So these are students who may not have been considering graduate school or even considered it a possibility. That makes this a really unique program. It’s a paid mentorship opportunity and is very competitive. Graduate students will apply to be mentors and if selected they get matched with an undergraduate mentee. Especially for ethnic and racial minority students in higher-ed, I think we often take those mentorship roles. And so this is unique because you get paid to do it. It’s about compensating the labor.
And we’ve just launched a program for underrepresented STEM graduate students. It’s across all disciplines in STEM. And it’s a similar mentorship community-building program being funded through PPG Foundation. It’s super exciting. We’re also working on building support for the UndocuGrads program. It’s student-led and is specifically intended for undocumented graduate students, because their journey is far more complicated in graduate school as funding opportunities diminish.
And then there’s just a general day. I am very open for folks to come and have lunch with me or just hang out. And we’re trying to provide a space for students— specifically students who are underrepresented and historically marginalized or currently minorities — to come by and vent and brainstorm solutions when they’re feeling some concern about their program, department, or the university.
MC: What are the best modes of communication with you. And how can you provide a community with a more meaningful structure, where you get to show support?
SA: I’m very responsive to email. I’m happy to give out my phone number, and I am typically most responsive by text. If you want me to answer a phone call, make sure that I have your name saved, because I don’t answer unknown numbers. But email, I get a push notifications — so it’s basically the same thing as texting me.
The hours that the office is officially open is 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. And then 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. I’m usually in here 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and I try really hard to keep my 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. lunch break, but I’ve also already mentioned that I’m happy to have lunch with students.
MC: What’s your vision for the future of your role?
SA: I feel like that changes every day. I think, a lot of times, we’ll take on work because it’s something we enjoy, and we want to do. But I think we also all have personal goals that can be incorporated into our professional environments. I think part of that comes from the support that I received through DCAC. They were very adamant about pushing me towards graduate school because they knew it was an ultimate goal of mine. And so I’m thinking about what things students would want to learn and asking them, and seeing how I can support them. A lot of it starts with the office: what kind of culture we are cultivating here and how am I contributing.
Personally and professionally I need to be learning. And I’m using a lot of my organizational skills: I like structure. Just having the opportunity to interact with students, whether it’s the folks that work with us here in this office or at our events. For students who don’t often have a space to be their full selves, being able to provide those spaces is pretty cool.
I’m not loyal to an institution. I’m loyal to the scholars.