Graduate Student Profile - Marķa Ledesma (Education)
Visiting public high schools in Hayward as an outreach counselor for UC Berkeley, Marķa Ledesma ran into some familiar faces. A couple of years earlier, as a member of an in-school team for the nonprofit Partners in School Innovation, she had worked with fourth graders at nearby Ruus Elementary School. Now, she "was running into some of my former elementary school students in the midst of their high school careers."
It was her "own little personal pipeline of students," Marķa says, and what she saw was not entirely encouraging. Some students who had been full of promise a few years earlier—energetic, dynamic, and bright—"had been tracked out of college preparation courses." While certainly personal effort plays a role in academic success, "part of the outcome is institutional," Marķa thought, "in terms of how a student is treated and supported." Achieving their potential would be difficult for "students tracked out of courses that are a prerequisite for higher education," she says. "It was disheartening."
It was not, however, entirely surprising. Growing up in Oakland and attending Oakland public schools, Marķa says, "I was surrounded by very bright students," most of them African American. After high school, she found herself "at UC Berkeley’s doorstep," accepted for undergraduate studies in English and obtaining her degree. Although some of her high school peers went to college, too, others "were very deserving but didn’t get an opportunity—not because they were any less intelligent than I was."
As Marķa sees it, "my success was the product of a lot of people’s effort, people I know and people I don’t know." Among the "people I know" was her brother, who had preceded her to UC Berkeley and could offer advice, and a friend who sent along a brochure that got Marķa thinking about a program at Harvard University, where she acquired a master’s degree in education. Among the unknown were "pioneers and advocates who fought to give a first-generation Chicana student a chance."
At the same time she was visiting Hayward high schools, Marķa was also sitting on a UC Berkeley team that read undergraduate applications and provided input for decisions. She saw that university faculty played a key role in setting the criteria for admissions. "Since I was interested in those issues, the next logical step was to become a faculty member."
The Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA had a doctoral specialization in race and ethnic studies that provided "a fit in terms of what the program was offering and what I was looking for," she says. At the start, her intention was to stay away from "anything on race-conscious admissions," but all those previous experiences apparently had a subconscious magnetism.
Doing a paper on the University of Michigan affirmative action cases for a sociology course, Marķa saw that the amicus briefs provided "a good data field for a dissertation," she says, and then it occurred to her: "Why not mine?" In a widely anticipated action, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a mixed ruling on two challenges to the university’s admissions policies. It upheld the right of universities to consider race in admissions to achieve a diverse student body. But although the ruling supported the Law School’s holistic consideration of race and ethnicity as part of admission decisions, it overturned the undergraduate practice of assigning a specific number of points to all applicants who were racial/ethnic minorities.
Because of the decision’s importance, a large number of organizations had filed briefs discussing the issues and supporting various stances. Marķa’s plan is to do "a textual analysis of the amicus briefs to see how we frame this issue in public discourse and how we come to talk about educational opportunities." For example, opponents of race-conscious admissions often use words like quota or preference that "trigger a certain kind of metaphor or reaction as opposed to framing the need for race-conscious policies within a historical context," Maria says, the context of "past and present social, political, and economic injustices that continue to yield disparate educational opportunities."
One of her advisers, Professor Walter R. Allen, says Marķa’s "path breaking" work "details the stakes, key actors, and future of affirmative action in U.S. higher education," combining "thoughtful, creative insight and state of the art methodical rigor." Marķa "examines the world with a critical, searching eye that insists on looking beyond conventional boundaries," Professor Allen says. "As a result, after each conversation with her, I find myself asking new questions and questioning old answers."
These qualities should be useful to the UC Board of Regents, on which Marķa will serve this year as a voting member representing students, after a year as an observer and committee participant. As a first-generation graduate student, Marķa was moved by "the opportunity to be at that table and to speak with my fellow regents and other colleagues and to be in some way representing historically underrepresented students." Again, however, she links her success to "the work of people I know and don’t know," pointing out that she follows 31 previous student regents "on whose shoulders I stand."
Sitting on the Board of Regents is one opportunity for Marķa to lend her shoulders to others, but it’s not the only one. As it happens, some of those youngsters she met at Ruus Elementary School and Hayward high schools are now "on the cusp of graduating from UCLA." When they meet, she always points out that "if ever I can help, that’s what I’m there for." Meantime, catching up with the progress of her "own personal pipeline of students" has been a highlight of her stay at UCLA, she says. "It’s been one of the things I treasure."
Published in Winter 2007, Graduate Quarterly