On Jasmin López’s first day of classes at PCC, she was stuck in the parking garage.
Looking for a spot with increasing desperation, the Southeast Los Angeles native was about to give up when she got a text message from academic counselor Juan Pablo Carreon. “Juan Pablo wrote ‘Where are you, we’ll wait for you,’” Ms. López recalled recently, “and it made me realize that people were watching out for me.”
Unlike her previous attempts to pursue higher education, she said, the feeling of affirmation she had that day told her that she was in the right place. “There are actually people that care” at PCC, she remembered thinking.
This month, Ms. López is feeling affirmation on a grander scale. On Friday, April 1, she was one of only three students in California recognized by the community college system’s Board of Governors with a Student Leadership Award. The prestigious honor, which comes with a cash prize of $1,250, is given to students “who demonstrate the highest level of commitment to leadership.”
Ms. López’s journey to an awards ceremony in Sacramento was hardly straightforward. Her father spent most of his daughter’s life in prison and her brother was wrongfully convicted. She found a job working in the catering industry when two attempts to attend community college didn’t stick. No one else in her family had attended college, and she didn’t see a place for higher education in her future.
It wasn’t until she moved in with her aunt in Highland Park that Ms. López came to PCC for good. She started taking one class at a time, but as she met counselors like Mr. Carreon and others, she felt more at home. A student retreat led by Laura Electa Hayes, a fellow student working in PCC’s Formerly Incarcerated Radical Scholars Team (FIRST) club, awoke a burning sense of transformative justice in Ms. López.
“I realized that higher education wasn’t all just barriers,” she said. “There are resources for me as well.” Her aunt offered to help with expenses, so she was able to become a full-time student.
Ms. López became deeply involved in the FIRST club, drawing on her own experience as a justice-impacted woman to help others heal, find their voice, and grow their own identity. PCC’s classroom experience drove her awakening. Ms. López remembers her English 1A class, taught by Elsie Rivas-Gomez, in which she read Gloria Anzaldúa’s The Borderlands. “It was the first time I read a book by a female, queer, person of color,” she recalled. “I couldn’t put it down.”
Professor Anthony Francoso remembers Ms. López as one of the standout students in his Introduction to Sociology course. “She was always prompt, sitting in the front row, and ready to discuss course material showing an in depth understanding that went beyond the other students,” Dr. Francoso wrote in nominating Ms. López for the statewide award. “She is an asset to the class, not only because her comments teach the class a great deal, but also because she teaches me.”
Eventually she and two other FIRST club members, Emmanuel Gómez and Robert Villanueva, felt so compelled to give back that they ran for student government under the banner of “Together We Rise.” During the pandemic, as the Associated Students’ Vice President for Equity, Ms. López helped her classmates manage challenges to mental health, connecting via online events and spoken-word nights on YouTube, and creating new spaces for justice and transparency.
Her work to help other students step forward stood out to her professors. “Where others are silent, Jasmin vocalizes the needs of the voiceless by advocating as a strong presence,” adjunct professor and FIRST club advisor Ariana Resendi wrote in her nominating packet. “Her drive and passion are like no other.”
As she waits for news of a transfer to UCLA, where she plans to pursue anthropology, Ms. López continues to transmute her own sense of identity into a source of empowerment for her fellow students. Under her initiative, on April 20 the FIRST club will host a showcase of music, dance, drawing, and other expression titled “Healing Arts: Healing the Impacts of Incarceration Through Art.” Other students will find healing by sharing their experiences, just as Ms. López has learned to do.
Even as she prepares to move on, she knows she’ll have a home in Pasadena. “I never really felt the educational system was for me until I came to PCC,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I belonged.
“PCC gave me that sense of belonging.”