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Photo of Valeria Rojas '22.

Photo of Valeria Rojas '22.

Neuroscience, Public Health Major Valeria Rojas ’22 Will Continue Advocating For Others

‘I don't sell myself short anymore.’

‘I don't sell myself short anymore.’

Growing up in Gilroy in a first generation Latinx household prompted Valeria Rojas ’22 to look at the world through a different lens. Watching her cousin go from doctor to doctor in an attempt to get diagnosed for her mental disability inspired Rojas to study the brain at Santa Clara University, where the neuroscience/public health double major and biology minor is aiming to pursue a medical career after graduation.

“It’s something that I've always known that I wanted to do,” says Rojas. “I’ve always been fascinated by the brain. It’s why neuroscience stood out to me.”

Being exposed to numerous marginalized communities and identities from a young age, and noticing the lack of accessible resources and treatment options in medicine, also made her a strong advocate for individuals who might not share the privileges she’s had. Rojas has made it her goal to help close this gap, especially within the Latinx community.

Advocating for others has continued at Santa Clara as well, where she has pushed for inclusiveness in previously exclusive spaces, noting her work in the Rainbow Resource Center and the Office for Multicultural Learning, in particular. 

We recently sat down with the graduating senior to talk about highlights of her four years at SCU. 

Where does the need to speak up for others come from?

I have always felt the need to speak up and speak out—it’s always been in my nature. I feel like my Latinx identity, my identity as a woman, and being first generation propelled me into a life of advocacy, where celebration of our differences is the goal, not just tolerance. It’s detrimental whenever a community is overlooked or marginalized in any way, and I have the privilege to highlight and speak up for not only myself, but for others who might not have the opportunity to.

You’re a first generation student. How has the LEAD Scholar program helped you in your journey to graduation?

I couldn’t be more grateful for Erin Kimura-Walsh and all the LEAD staff who have helped me reach my life goal of pursuing a degree in STEM. My parents have always encouraged me and my siblings to pursue a higher education, and because my parents did not have the opportunity to go to a university despite wanting to, I see this achievement as one for all of us—they’ve been a very big motivator in my education. The LEAD program helped me feel affirmed and at home while on campus, and helped me push through feelings of adversity and imposter syndrome when I felt like I didn’t have any more fight left in me.

You ended up adding public health as a second major. How did that come about?
During my junior year, through one of the heights of the pandemic, something that was becoming abundantly clear to me was the widespread misinformation about COVID that polarized the very essence of public health and public safety. After being informed by my advisor that I had the opportunity to graduate early, I thought there could be no better way to study public health than through a public health crisis, so I added my second major. I’m glad I did, because I was able to learn so much more about marginalized communities in medicine through the combination of my majors. 

Which faculty members have stood out to you, and why?

I’ve had really, really good people in my corner at Santa Clara. Michele Parker, assistant director in the public health department, and Christelle Sabatier, program director of the neuroscience department, are both forces to be reckoned with—so knowledgeable, yet also so down to earth. They’re the first professors on campus who made me feel like I don't have to sacrifice who I am or my personality in order to be taken seriously as a student, or as a professional. I feel like I really connected with both of them. Even though I’m not taking their classes anymore, I’ve been able to maintain communication with them and talk to them about life after college and it’s very nice knowing that they are truly rooting for my and others’ success, which is always something to appreciate.

Rojas with friends, colleagues at SCU's Office For Multicultural Learning and the Rainbow Resource Center.

Rojas with friends, colleagues at SCU's Office For Multicultural Learning and the Rainbow Resource Center.


What does your future career look like?

While I can’t say for sure where life will take me, my current career path involves becoming a nurse practitioner who assists patients in both English and Spanish. Growing up having to translate for my family, most notably in medical offices, one of the first disparities in medicine that I noticed was the necessity for more bilingual professionals. By dedicating my career goals to becoming one of those professionals, I can directly assist my community in providing better access to healthcare, and higher autonomy of care. Learning medical Spanish is my next step to achieving this goal and I am actively seeking opportunities that can help me reach the finish line.

Advice you’d offer incoming students? 

Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do something before you tell yourself that you can’t; and even if they do, it’s not the end of the world. Often, I underestimated and rejected myself before anyone could do that to me, which prevented me from a lot of opportunities that could have been potentially really beneficial for my growth.

In my four years, I’ve come to realize that I might not be the most qualified, but if I’m a well-rounded person, I can bring something to the table. While having a million things on your resume could get a foot in the door, who you are as an individual and your character is equally as important. I feel like if you have a balance between things that you're passionate about and things that you’re dedicated to professionally, that’s what’s really important. I don’t sell myself short anymore.

I would also say that being friendly and talking with your professors can be a big assistance for navigating not only your major, but life at college and outside of it as well. And remember not to take everything so seriously; take things with a grain of salt. Give yourself grace.

CAS, Culture, Diversity, Leadership, Science, Social Justice, Student Life, Undergraduate