Alumni Success Story: Valeria Popolizio

Valeria Popolizio (she/her) graduated from UConn in 2020, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Humans Rights with a minor in Latino Studies. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Educational Transformation with a concentration in Advocacy and Policy on an accelerated track at Georgetown University.

What are you currently doing post-UConn?

I’m currently at Georgetown pursuing my Masters in Educational Transformation with a concentration in Advocacy and Policy. It’s a one-year accelerated program. Through this program, we learn about the education system from its origins to now and look at it through a social justice lens and try to figure out how we are going to fix or advocate for people who are currently in the system. We focus on K through 12 education, but it has a specialty with Washington D.C. As part of my program, I also have a residency portion and I’m currently working for the Office of the Student Advocate with the DC State Board of Education.

What did you study during your undergraduate career and what influenced your decision to pursue that major/program?

It started up as a curiosity of education through METAS (METAS is a peer mentoring program in which first-year or transfer students get paired with current UConn students who assist them with their transition to the University). While working, I kept asking myself why is it that Latinx students are not given the proper tools necessary for success in higher education before they reach it? Especially at a predominantly white institution, whether it be PRLACC (Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center) or wherever they find their community, it could be extremely difficult, so that’s where the curiosity started from.

A lot of my human rights classes somehow always circled back to we have problems in our system, in our world, let’s fix it with education. That’s kind of such an easy answer to have, because our education system is not built for everyone. Our education system very much reproduces systems of oppression, and so if you can’t fix all the things that have to do with human rights through education, we have to start at education and see where you go from there. There’s so much politics behind education and that just shouldn’t be the case, it should be a resource that everyone has quality access to.

I’m trying to see how we can make the system better, and so that’s really what got me here.

Please share two or three noteworthy internships, co-curricular activities, volunteer experiences, jobs, programs, or other degrees and certifications acquired that contributed to your current success.

One is METAS. That gave me the opportunity to work alongside a lot of people to not just see where we’re at, but also try to provide the resources and try to be creative in figuring out what is it that our community needs today. When Shariel Rodriguez was my METAS co-coordinator, we wanted to figure out what are the resources that make everyone successful and that was super cool.

Another experience was BOLD Women’s Leadership Network through the Office of Undergraduate Research. BOLD is a national women’s leadership network where you do an independent research project on a topic of choice, and also throughout the time you connect with the other scholars and do a leadership and development series. In BOLD specifically, I was really able to see how important it is to connect all the dots. For example, in our cohort, we had women who studied health care disparities, women in medicine, etc. So, a lot of us connected the dots together where if we kind of fix your problem we can fix this problem. One of our scholars, Kat Morris, did a lot of things on coalition building and how that’s important for advocacy work. That really stuck with me because all of us were building a small coalition in a way, and now in grad school, I see that can’t do this work in a silo. We can’t just act like education can work in a little bubble. We have to fix all of the things that are happening. So in all, BOLD was really helpful in getting to this moment because it provides a broader perspective.

How has being a first-generation student impacted your educational experience at UConn?

It led me to this space. I don’t think I would be as passionate about the issues that I am if it wasn’t for the fact that I have had to navigate the system technically by myself. Really looking for that community was so important as a First-Generation student because I knew that as much as my parents wanted to help me out, as much as my sister wanted to help me out, they didn’t necessarily have the tools that were adequate for navigating education and higher education. It led me to go be and be a part of METAS as a mentee and that made me love the program and become a mentor. After I loved being a mentor I decided that ‘OK, I have to be a coordinator like that would be so amazing’.

It also made me realize how precious it was that I could just choose any classes that I wanted to and put my all into my degree. I made sure I was pursuing what it was that I loved because that degree was for my whole family and I needed to make sure that I was giving my 100%. Being a First-Gen student brought a lot of good weight on my shoulders to know that I’ve got to make it worth it. 

PRLACC is a home away from home for many Latinx students at UConn, a place to be in community and learn from each other.

How has being a part of the Latinx community impacted your educational experience at UConn? 

This is where the advocacy coalition comes in because I saw how the community has so much strength. In spaces like high school or even earlier, I’ve been told that it’s very rare for Latinx students to go into college or told about all the barriers in my way. Through being part of the Latinx community at UConn and being a part of PRLACC, I realized my community is behind me and we are stronger than these barriers and we will not bend. That really showed me how much there is strength in numbers and working together. I wanted to be a voice within the community and learn from them because the greater community has helped me shift my perspective so much. It was definitely deficit-based before and now I realize we have strength here. Let’s work together to knock it all down.

“I wanted to be a voice within the community and learn from them because the greater community has helped me shift my perspective so much. It was definitely deficit-based before and now I realize we have strength here.”

How have your intersecting identities shaped your experience on this campus?

I always think about how I’m also an immigrant. Being a first-generation immigrant and having to navigate my educational experience, even just applying to college, was difficult in itself. Also with BOLD, just talking about the power we have as women is important. A lot of times we’re told in our professional lives that we might be the only woman in the room. We really have to fight against those imposter syndrome moments. My undergrad was a bunch of imposter syndrome and I’m still working through it and tell myself that I am where I belong to be and that I deserve to be here. I think that’s true with all of my identities, not just being a woman. Being in a space like BOLD allowed me to realize I am going to transform this space and I am going to take up space.

What advice would you give to other UConn students who share the same identities as you?

Go and seek your own community, and not just one, seek all of the communities that you can. I was very involved in PRLACC, but I also had a community within Model United Nations. I had a community within BOLD and they always had my back. The biggest thing is to know that you’re not alone. It can be very overwhelming, especially in such a predominantly white institution. There were times where I was the only person of color in the room when we were talking about things like civil rights and human rights. People were like looking at me and expecting me to speak for a whole community of people. That’s why, in those moments that might feel very lonely, it’s important to have a group of people behind you. So, explore as much as you can.

Please share which groups, organizations, or other resources at UConn contributed to your career success and how. 

I have talked about BOLD and I talked about METAS and I one I would add is definitely Model United Nations. It was really special to me because we would write a 30-page background guide beforehand over the summer, and when it came to the conference time, we were the ones who ran it for middle and high schoolers. Seeing how they have all the answers, and being in a space where youth can make up the solutions to problems in our society, I realized that is where I want to be and that’s the energy that I loved to bounce ideas off of.

Please share which groups, organizations, or other resources that are not at UConn contributed to your career success and how. 

I worked within my own community at Manchester High School as a college and career readiness advisor. That’s where I graduated from and they’re also the ones who have contributed to my success story because they’re the ones who gave me a job right out of college and really believed in me. To give me such a big task of helping students apply to college, especially for someone fresh out of undergrad, to trust me to help all those kids, it’s crazy, but I’m thankful.

What advice would you give to other UConn students who are looking to follow a similar academic and/or career path? 

I would say tap into your community. Tap into all of the places you know you’ve left your mark before. Essentially, there are people who are always willing to help, but it also takes a little bit of effort for you to build that relationship. Find those people who are focused on your success, whether it be your advisor or professor or a TA that you find. There have been so many people along my own journey at UConn that I knew were rooting me on and it was really up to me to connect with them and talk to them and tell them about my dreams. Tell people about your dreams, your aspirations, even if you think they might be a little too big. I felt like I would be out of my element if I go to a place like Georgetown, and I remember telling a professor ‘this is kind of what I think’ and they were the ones who were like absolutely you can do it. So, talk to people who have your back and foster those relationships and just keep up because people want to see you succeed and they might have the tools that you don’t even know you need.

By Heidi Pineda
Heidi Pineda Affinity Community Outreach and Programming Intern Heidi Pineda