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‘Things Must Fall Apart to Fall into Place’

Student commencement speaker Letzy Vargas on perseverance, self-love and sparking equity

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As we approach Commencement weekend, UC San Diego Today reached out to Letzy Vargas, who was recently selected to serve as student commencement speaker at All Campus Commencement on Saturday, June 17. Here, in her own words, Vargas shares her pathway to UC San Diego, what it means to be the first in her family to graduate from college, lessons learned about the importance of mental health and the change she wants to make as a future physician.

As a primera generación Mexicana Americana, a first generation Mexican American, I am making history in my family this June. Growing up, my family always told me, “Echale ganas para que seas alguien en la vida”—give it your all so you can be somebody in life. And so, I did.

But my path wasn’t easy. When I was 15 years old, my dad was arrested and incarcerated, which quickly prompted me to step up and take on more responsibilities in my family. My mom tried her best to support my little brother and I throughout the entirety of our childhood and teenage years, taking on her new role as a single mother with limited help and guidance. 

Letzy Vargas wearing her graduation gown and stole posing in front of the library
Letzy Vargas graduates this June with a bachelor's degree in human biology with plans to become a physician. Photo by Erik Jepsen/University Communications.

Being the first-born and the only daughter, a lot of responsibilities and pressure fell onto me. I quickly got my driver’s license to drive us to school because my mom worked so early and we had nobody else who was able to take us. I would wake up early every morning to make breakfast for my brother and I and also started a part-time job at a gas station to alleviate the financial burden from my mom.

While this was overwhelming, I didn’t let the extra responsibilities impact my schoolwork. In high school the only thing on my mind was getting good grades; I graduated at the top of my class. UC San Diego had been my dream school before I had a full understanding of what college was. I was fixated on becoming a Triton even though I had no idea how to get there. The day I received my offer of admission is an unforgettable day, for myself and my mom, as we were filled with incredible emotion. My family had supported me and made many sacrifices to help me get to that point and I was eternally grateful to them. I remember calling my mom at work, emotional and overjoyed, and we cried on the phone together.

It was a full circle moment when I got the email telling me I was selected as the Class of 2023 All Campus Commencement Student Speaker. I was in Price Center and called my mom immediately. As I told her the news, we started crying together again, as we were overjoyed. I feel so grateful and appreciative to have such a wonderful opportunity—and a little nervous!

Two photos showing Letzy with her mom and brother, and another with her mom.
Family is very important to Vargas, here pictured with her mom and brother.

A life shrouded in panic is transformed by self-love

Reflecting on my time at UC San Diego, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but it was not without obstacles—both physical and mental. During my first year of college, I didn't tend to my mental health. In my culture and family, we don't talk about things like that; it's taboo, which makes it easier to push it down and avoid it. I didn't have a lot of confidence and doubted myself and my purpose. I would crumble whenever I didn't do well on an exam or assignment and would waste so much time being mean to myself.

I started to develop panic attacks every day, which happened for several months. It was very draining because I’d never had a panic attack before and I didn’t have the tools to help me navigate and understand my episodes. My hair began to fall out in clumps and I would have to be sedated, causing me to sleep through most of the day. I had post-traumatic stress syndrome and couldn’t drive, so I had to rely on friends and family to help me during this distressing time. I went through periods of depression to the point where I was suicidal. I even wanted to drop out of college.

My life was transformed when I began to seek help. I visited Counseling & Psychological Services and began seeing a therapist twice a week. I joined the UC San Diego Eating Disorder Program to address an eating disorder that I’ve had since I was very young, which had affected so many areas of my life and contributed to the high levels of anxiety and depression I experienced. I can confidently say that they saved my life and I would not be here without their support and dedication to helping me overcome these barriers. I learned that no matter how bad it gets, it’s always going to be okay.

In my culture and family, we don't talk about [mental health]; it's taboo, which makes it easier to push it down and avoid it. I didn't have a lot of confidence and doubted myself and my purpose. I would crumble whenever I didn't do well on an exam or assignment and would waste so much time being mean to myself.
Letzy Vargas

Finding a community of friends also made a big difference. In my first year I joined a dance team on campus called Ascension, who became a family to me. As I ventured deeper into the dance community at UC San Diego, I discovered some of them shared my major and had similar struggles as I did. We supported each other, academically and emotionally, which helped make navigating university less scary and intimidating. It helped me feel more at home and more understood. I became the captain and later an artistic director, and we went on to win first place at a dance competition in 2021.

Collage of three images showing Letzy posing with her dance group, Ascension.
During her first year Vargas joined the dance group Ascension. She soon formed strong bonds with other members as they discovered that they shared similar experiences, helping each other navigate university life.

I’ve learned a lot about slowing down and taking the time to recognize how much I have gone through, being kind to myself in the process. I now understand how to cope with difficult emotions and thoughts, and have learned to speak up when I need help. I love taking nature walks or going to the park, taking myself on a picnic, doing things for myself to remind me that I'm alive and being alive is great. I feel more optimistic about life in general. I know that I deserve to be in the places that I'm in and know that my background and my obstacles do not make me less worthy of taking up space.

Leveraging my Latina roots to create change in the medical field

It feels surreal to be graduating from UC San Diego in a few days. My family sacrificed a lot for me and has supported me throughout my entire educational journey. It feels amazing to have had their love and support for so long and to have the opportunity to be where I am today. I'm very proud of where I come from. I'm proud of being a Latina woman. I'm proud of my family and mom. And I want to give back.

Letzy takes a selfie of her and a friend in a lab wearing goggles, mask and a lab coat.
Vargas has a passion for science, each class fueling her interest more and more. She plans to continue to medical school where she will leverage her identity to promote equity.

Growing up in a Spanish speaking family in a community where the population is mostly Latinx (Coachella Valley, Calif.), I've noticed how the language barrier and lack of cultural competency in the healthcare field adversely affects the community. This has inspired me to seek a career in the medical field as a doctor.

This month I am completing my bachelor’s degree in human biology. I really love science and have enjoyed each class that I’ve taken so far—from human reproduction to immunology and biology of cancer. It’s all very exciting to me and it’s difficult to choose one that I love the most! I want to continue my education and learn more about the field of science.

During my time at UC San Diego, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and taking courses from outstanding faculty, including immunology professor Elina Zuniga and infectious disease professor Sinem Beyhan. After sharing personal details about my background and my struggles adapting as a first generation student, both of these women empowered me and encouraged me to continue breaking barriers, emphasizing that these aspects of my identity are powerful and motivating and should not limit what I could do.

They may not realize the impact they have had on me but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to cross paths with them. I am more committed than ever to increasing the presence of Latinx doctors in the medical field and giving back to the people in my hometown who have encouraged me and supported me for so long.

Throughout the difficulties in my undergraduate education, I have continuously reminded myself how lucky I am to be here and how capable I am of achieving my goals. I’ve learned that it’s okay to take detours because progress is rarely linear. Often things have to fall apart to fall into place. I look forward to sharing my experiences with the Class of 2023 at All Campus Commencement, and reminding them that struggle is a normal part of life. It doesn’t make us less worthy; it makes us human. And we are all exceptional humans.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to take detours because progress is rarely linear. Often things have to fall apart to fall into place...struggle is a normal part of life. It doesn’t make us less worthy; it makes us human. And we are all exceptional humans.
Letzy Vargas

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