Life is Trying Me, but We're Out Here: Alumni Spotlight with Erika Gallegos Contreras

Erika Gallegos Contreras

Eastside 2010

UCLA 2014, Chicana/o Studies


 

The year was 2010, and Erika Gallegos Contreras had just graduated from Eastside. Eager and bright-eyed, she made the trek down to UCLA beyond excited to leave home, be on her own, and start a new adventure. And indeed, it certainly was an adventure, but it did not start off as magnificent as she had hoped or imagined. College, it turned out, was much more difficult than she thought it would be. Like most Eastside students, she was the first person in her family to go to college and found herself trying to balance school work and home many miles away without having a blueprint or example of how to succeed in this new space. “You don’t actually know [what it’s going to be like]. As much as Eastside prepares us, you don’t really know what you’re walking into.” She found herself struggling in classes, grappling with what to major in, trying to figure out her whole life, AND taking on family responsibilities back home. She felt she had to figure it all out right away, but looking back she realized, “it’s really not like that at all,” you don’t have to have it all figured out when you’re in college.


With all this going on, she started to fail classes and battle different episodes of anxiety and depression. At the same time, however, she kept thinking she couldn’t quit.


“I can’t give up because my parents are depending on me. And also, in a way, Eastside was depending on me…. The teachers and mentors put in so much time and effort to help you that, to me, when I was in college, some of the depression and feelings of guilt were like ‘what am I doing, I’m not living up to the expectations people had for me’ and ‘do I really belong here or was I just a ‘star student’ at Eastside but not a ‘star student’ in the real world?’”


Some of the pressure she felt was alleviated when she was home visiting her parents. They expressed that they were proud of her, no matter what happened with her grades or which major she chose. She recalls them saying “‘You made it to college, and that’s something that we never got to see and never had the idea that our kids would get to do.’” After their conversation, she was encouraged to continue and to finish her college career strongly, knowing that she had her parents’ support no matter what. As she reflects now, she realizes she could not have made it through college without her family and community. “It’s not just something I did, [I’m grateful for] everyone who has [supported] me since I was born to my community in college. [College] has been a community effort. It has never been, ‘I have gotten through college alone.’”


Her parents’ support as well as her advisor’s prompting helped her find an area of study she loved. In the beginning of her college career, she intended to major in psychology. She later realized she wasn’t passionate about it. In fact, she recalls with a knowing laugh, “it didn’t work out, didn’t work out at all.” After not doing well in psychology classes but getting an A in her introductory Chicana/o studies courses, her advisor helped make it more clear the summer before her junior year: psychology isn’t your thing, consider majoring in Chicana/o studies. She did feel some pressure from UCLA’s competitive culture to find a different major because it was seen as an “easy out” for Latino students since it didn’t include math and science. Additionally, questions swirled around regarding where a degree in Chicana/o studies would get her, sometimes in her own head and sometimes from those around her. However, as she took more courses within the major and was able to engage in discussions centering her own and her community’s experience of survival and success in the United States and in higher academia, Erika realized this major was right for her. She was deeply motivated and empowered to continue learning about the history, art, and narratives of people similar to herself who were creating their own visions of “making it” while simultaneously resisting and organizing to dismantle systems of oppression through different mediums.  In the end, she was confident and proud with her choice, “I loved it! It was the most amazing experience!” She learned a lot about herself and the importance of ethnic studies in the education system. She credits her major as one of her biggest inspirations and motivations during her struggles with balancing school and depression. In difficult moments, she was inspired by the strength and role Chicana/os and immigrants from Central and South America have had in shaping our world today and their contributions to the rights of the greater community. She also had the opportunity to minor in Labor and Workplace Studies, which looks at how race, ethnicity, and class play into the workplace, specifically in how it sparked social movements and workers’ rights movements and was able to gain first hand experience in community organizing for current labor movements. As she looks back now, she is grateful for the journey in choosing her major, but she wishes she would have realized earlier that she didn’t have to stick with a field of study just because she originally said she wanted to, “I wish I had not pigeon-holed myself in a certain area and thought that ‘Oh, I can’t do something that’s not this.’”


Erika carried on and made it to senior year despite the failure, episodes of anxiety and depression, and unanswered questions about the future. To try to answer the question “what’s next?”, she applied to City Year, a branch of Americorps that “helps close gaps in high-need schools by supporting student’s academic and social-emotional development while also providing schools with the additional capacity to enhance school culture and climate.” Much to her relief, Erika heard back from City Year in January, and with post-graduation pans set, she refocused her efforts on graduating.


City Year and The Clayman Institute

After graduating from UCLA, Erika moved back home and was assigned to a fourth grade classroom in San Jose with City Year. She was quickly made aware that City Year would be an even bigger learning experience than college. Her days were packed from the time she arrived at work at 7:30am to the time she left at 6:30pm. “It was intense,” she recalled, especially because “fourth grade is when the students stop caring about green, yellow, and red performance cards, and start wanting to talk back.” When work got really tough, she would remind herself of why she applied and wanted to work for City Year in the first place.


“I went into it because I really loved the mission of City Year, which is to give a year to provide support for the students and literacy tutoring....I wanted to do it because it was a community exactly like EPA. I knew that a lot of volunteers who did City Year were predominantly white students from privileged backgrounds, who were going into this with a white savior complex whether they were acknowledging it or not. So I wanted to be a breath of fresh air and someone [the students] could relate to and someone that they could look to and know that ‘college is a possibility if I really want that.’”


After working in her classroom, she started to realize that, even though City Year was a great program, there was not enough follow-through or adequate preparation for the work they were doing with students. “Students face a lot, and you had to figure out how to give them emotional support while also trying to help them focus on school even when the school wasn’t giving them support.” As her time there continued, she found the work increasingly difficult without proper support for herself or her students.


“I tried my best, and I wanted to give up a lot of times, but I couldn’t because I was there for the students. And once you make that connection [with the students], it’s so hard to say, ‘Okay, I’m out, this isn’t good for me.’ because the students are there and they’re wanting/needing you there.”


Despite the challenges of supporting her students, long hours, and little pay, she finished out her time at City Year and commitment to her students. As her time there closed she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do next and she found herself looking for any job that would give her a paycheck because she was previously working on a small stipend, “I was even ready to work at In-N-Out! They pay $15/hr and that’s more than what we were making [at City Year].”


However, double-doubles, animal style fries, and giant safety pins were not in her employment future. Through her best friend from Eastside, Chantaell, she found out about an opportunity at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, “I didn’t even really know what [the job title] meant, I just looked at the job description and I was like, I guess I can kinda do this.” The interview went well, and she was offered the job on the spot and she accepted it, even though she didn’t have a lot of research experience. But she knew she wanted the job because it paid well, was close to where she was living, and their mission aligned with some of her passions.


Three years later, Erika is still working at Clayman within the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, now bearing the title Corporate Program Manager. Her first week on the job was, perhaps, one of the most memorable. She was invited to attend a conference, all expenses paid, for Latina women professionals. At the conference, Clayman’s Associate Director, Andrea, was giving a presentation about the language of leadership. Erika had an amazing experience, and Andrea noted that next year, Erika would be giving the presentation herself. “I was like, ‘No. You’re crazy!’” This was literally her first week! The thought of giving a presentation to a crowd of professional women on a topic she wasn’t familiar with yet was outrageous.


But as fate would have it, the following year, the organizer of the conference reached out and invited the Institute to come back, specifically asking Erika to speak. Andrea encouraged her and believed in her despite her hesitations,

“I was really nervous…. And I felt like such an imposter at the time because I didn’t have a research background or a PhD, and all these women here have PhDs… I’m the youngest one and the only one without a PhD.”


Despite her own initial doubts, she presented at the conference, has been to three others since, and led several other workshops and talks for the company. “That has been amazing. I never thought I’d 1) go to a conference to represent my company, and 2) get paid to do it.” These experiences have helped her find that she is extremely passionate about the elevating the experiences of young women of color and that she would like to pursue that passion in the future. She and the Lab work to bring awareness about biases in the workplace and help companies implement processes within their culture to decrease their biases and foster a more welcoming culture. For example, they are currently researching and educating companies on toxic masculinity and how it exists in and affects the workplace. Every year they host conferences for the companies who access their research to update them on their newest findings.


Living at Home & Rekindling Community

In addition to navigating work when she graduated, she also had to figure out how to live at home post-college. For Erika, moving back home was the easy option on paper but still difficult in practice, “You come back and you realize that your parents still think you’re a child. And you no longer have this freedom that you once had.” She searched for a balance in respecting her parents and needing to be independent, all while learning to budget her own finances. She considers this time to be when she figured out what it is to be an adult.


“In college you’re figuring out what it is to be an adult and to take care of yourself and be responsible [while you’re still studying and going to classes], but once you’re out of college, that’s when something clicks in your mind that you’re like, oh now I’m an adult.”

She used the tension of trying to balance all these things as a motivator to save up and move out of her parents’ house. Now she considers the move out of her parents’ house to be one of two things she’s most proud of.


“Since I was young, I always wanted to be out of the house…. Now I’m realizing and celebrating I am on my own [and] I’m supporting myself at 27. I have the freedom to do whatever I want.”


She’s proud to be on her own with her own expectations, especially after reflecting on imposed cultural expectations that a lot of women face. She recalls one afternoon in the car with her family right after graduating from UCLA, where she mentioned to her younger brother she was going to move out soon, but not for school this time,


“My dad turned around and said, ‘why are you going to move out? Daughters in Mexico don’t move out until they get married.’ And I was like, ‘well we’re not in Mexico and I’m definitely not going to get married anytime soon.”


Although Erika and her parents may have different ideas of what is expected of her future, she’s incredibly grateful for the support she’s received and examples she’s seen throughout her life,


“It has been through the sacrifices, love, and support I’ve gotten through my family and friends, specifically through the women in my life. They take those challenges and turn them into strength and motivation, and I’ve seen their perseverance and resilience through the different obstacles they face.”


Moving back home also meant Erika had to find new community because most of her friends from UCLA stayed in Los Angeles. She found herself reconnecting with friends from Eastside, “the people I hang out with, the people I turn to are all people that I’ve met through Eastside. They’re all still there [for me]…. That’s why I’m so grateful to Eastside. It’s just like a family. It’s just always there [to have your back].”


It was easy to reconnect with her friends from Eastside because of their shared love and respect for one another, “It’s like, we have all gone through here and have overcome [different challenges]. Whether we went to college and finished, or we went to college and didn’t finish, we know what that struggle has been like. We just want the best for each other. Always.”


Looking Back

Reflecting on her journey so far, Erika sees four experiences that have changed her life: attending Eastside, going to college, doing City Year, and working at the Clayman Institute.


Eastside helped her turn her dreams of going to college into a feasible reality.

“Without Eastside, I wouldn’t have even known what college was…. If I hadn’t gone to Eastside, I don’t think I would have gone to college right away or known what I needed to do.”


College helped her learn more about herself.

“Even though it was difficult, it was definitely needed… I needed it to realize what hard work and success really means [for myself] and what I am really passionate about and that failure is necessary because that’s where we really learn.”


City Year made clear her passions and values.

“I learned the importance of community and how I really want to fulfill that sense of civic duty that’s inside of me…. I so want to be the mentor and support for young students from similar backgrounds as me because I didn’t have that as much except through Eastside.”


Her current job, where she spearheads the high school and college internship program, solidified her passion in mentoring the younger generation and the type of work she would like to do.

“It’s something I just love and adore…. There’s so much going on [for these young women] at that time, but that’s when mentorship is most important because it can empower them to realize the power and control you have with your voice and in your life.”


These four experiences have shaped her present and a future she is excited about.


Moving Forward

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, Erika is excited to pursue several of her goals. First, she would like to dive into her interest in empowering young women of color, specifically in regard to sex education and sexual liberation. Her interest in these areas started in college, where she participated in a group that put on humorous skits and songs about sex education for high school students in the LA area. The goal of their skits and songs was to make the students laugh and feel more comfortable with the topics while also teaching them crucial information. She especially enjoyed the theater and performance aspect of it. Recently, she’s been doing a lot of research on her own, following several different sex educators to see how they frame their information in the different spaces they occupy, “I’m trying to figure out, what does that look like for me?” Ideally, she would prioritize the education and empowerment women of color and queer women of color because she feels current sex education often times does not include space to address their experiences and challenges.


“I really value spaces where women of color can come together and talk about their experiences and have workshops or open discussions around what it is they’re struggling with or have overcome [and gaining advice and support from each other].”


Most of all, she wants to work on not letting fear stop her from her goals, “I have in the past held myself back in pursuing this and other things because I’m like, ‘well, what if I fail?’ but I’ve learned you just have to take it as a different chapter.”


Next on her list is living abroad in Spain, “there’s just so much to see, so why not travel to see it?”. While at Eastside, Erika did two abroad programs, Oxbridge Academic Programs and Amigos de Las Americas. She didn’t have the time or funds to study abroad in college, but that doesn’t stop her from recommending it to others.


“I think everyone, all the students here should definitely try to go abroad either for the summer or for a year in college because it’s just such an eye-opener in so many different ways. You get to see how connected we are to people in different parts of the world and how different it is. It’s so easy to be ‘Eastside is life’ or ‘East Palo Alto is life,’ or even ‘California is the world,’ but there is so much out there and growth within that experience [of exploring].”


She’d also like to make a difference at home in East Palo Alto by getting more involved in the discussion and current organizing around its development and encouraging others to do the same.


“I’ve seen the way East Palo Alto has changed, and it’s just really disheartening, the development that’s going on, the lack of inclusion of the community, and even the lack of unity within the community….[The development] is just all so complicated, with so many different layers of oppression. It’s frustrating to see how the housing crisis is impacting all the people I care about. [East Palo Alto] is changing, but it’s changing in a way that the community doesn’t have a voice or say in how it is.”


Her care and concern for the city is deep as she was born and raised in East Palo Alto. She hopes to continue living here long-term, “I would love to live here, I would love to own a home here.”


Wisdom for the Eastside Alumni Community

Here's what Erika wants other Eastsiders to remember:

“Take a deep breath, always take deep breaths. In moments of self-doubt, look around, look around you at what you’ve overcome, what you’ve succeeded in, what you’ve failed at. You are still here. Look at what your parents have, what your community has, what Eastside has taken you through and really see the beauty and strength in that and know that, after all of that stuff, we’re still here and we’re going to continue being here. Do not think that there’s only one way to do it… When you start to think ‘what am I doing here, do I belong?’ know that there has been so much that has been done for you to get you where you are and that you have done so much to get where you are that you most definitely deserve to be here. You are going to continue on in whatever you choose to be or do.”


"Life is Trying Me, but We're Out Here"

When asked to title a theoretical autobiography, Erika responded with, Life is Trying Me, but We’re Out Here.


“Life really does try you, whether it’s your job, whether it’s academics, whether it’s family, or your own internal demons, but we are still out here. Sometimes life might feel like everything’s against you, but we, as a collective, the people around you who love and care for you, are there and we are continuing to survive and most importantly thrive.”