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Success Is What Your Community Makes It: Mitzi Iniguez ’09

August 5, 2020

What makes a successful Cal alum? A C-suite position? A parking spot on campus reserved for Nobel Laureates? Answers vary, but everyone remembers their first successful moment at Cal—getting their acceptance letter.

“I remember receiving my acceptance paper back then, and of course, you get to the first page and it talks about ‘Great! You got it!’ and the second sheet is pretty much costs.” And just that quickly, Cal for Mitzi Iniguez ’09 was no longer an option. “I was actually really focused on going to a CSU just because it was way cheaper.”

Though Mitzi grew up in Oakland, she didn’t know much about Cal and only visited UC Berkeley once on a 5th grade field trip. It was her counselor at Oakland High who pushed her to apply and attend. “My counselor had me under his wing since my freshman year. He was a Latino male; he went to Cal, as well.”

Word got out around school that Mitzi wouldn’t go to Cal because of the costs, so members from the Educational Guidance Center helped her apply and earn a full-ride scholarship through the Cal Opportunities Scholarship. However, the transition to Cal wasn’t smooth. “I still didn’t know much about what I was getting myself into in regards to rigor,” she said. “I think I for sure had this gap of transitioning in my mindset.”

Image courtesy of Mitzi Iniguez ’09
Although Mitzi had good grades in high school, she didn’t know how to be a college student, where to find academic resources, or how to find her tribe. She continued living at home, worked 20 hours a week, and hung out with her high school friends. “I was . . . living an extra year of high school,” she said. After her first semester, Mitzi was put on academic probation. “I was doing a lot . . . without taking the time to understand that Berkeley is a different ballgame, different situation, and I [was] really gonna have to create a new strategy to be successful there.”

Access to education has always been important to Mitzi. She’s a first-generation Mexican-American whose mother was a field worker and father was a welder. Mitzi’s mother didn’t want Mitzi doing the same kind of work, and viewed education as a vehicle for success. “My mom would take us to the field to pick cherries and . . . tell us, ‘If you don’t go to college, you’re gonna pick cherries with your aunts and uncles for the rest of your life.’”

That warning stuck with Mitzi. She became concerned with not just her success, but also the success of other students. She volunteered at Berkeley High’s RISE program and Cal’s Raza Recruitment and Retention Center—both of which helped kids transition to college—and joined Lambda Theta Alpha, a Latina sorority, and started meeting people from Oakland. “It was really nice to find connections in those ways and bring it back to my community. I think that’s also what helped build my confidence,” Mitzi explained. With her newfound clarity, she decided to double major in social welfare and Chicano studies with a minor in education.

In her senior year, Mitzi decided she would become a high school counselor. Her own high school counselor had been instrumental in her academic growth, and she wanted to provide that to others. While earning her master’s in counseling at San Francisco State University, Mitzi interned for Cal’s Educational Opportunity Program, where she eventually became a full-time staff member and worked for nine years.

“I think . . . a successful alum would be someone who . . . is making a change in their community,” Mitzi said. “Sometimes that’s time, sometimes that’s mentorship, sometimes it’s [financial].

“I was working with a lot of students, especially Latino students who worked really hard and had so much support in high school, but once they got to Cal, they were struggling a lot.” Rather than focus on recruiting students, Mitzi wanted to help students transition to and stay at Cal, including her sister: “My little sister ended up going to Cal, [and] me going there and having the institutional knowledge and the experience of working there so many years really supported her journey, too.”

Although Mitzi no longer works on campus, she actively seeks opportunities to support people of color through her career. Her success at Berkeley was tied to the support from her community, and she continues to work under that mindset. “I think . . . a successful alum would be someone who . . . is making a change in their community,” Mitzi said. “Sometimes that’s time, sometimes that’s mentorship, sometimes it’s [financial]. If you make an impact in your community that matters to you, and you’re making other people’s lives better, I think that will work for sure.”