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First-generation Sac State graduate student earns CSU’s top academic honor

Encouraged by her mother, Carla Cruz Medina has pursued her education to help her become "capable of making my own way in the world.” (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Carla Cruz Medina’s pursuit of a science education has been fraught with obstacles. She was the first in her family to attend a university. As a woman of color from Mexico, she has been a minority in most of her courses. Her finances have been strained.

But she has persisted and excelled.

This month, the California State University recognized Cruz Medina’s efforts with the highest student recognition of student academic accomplishment in the CSU system, the Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement.

The CSU each year recognizes one student from each of the system’s 23 campuses with the awards, which honor scholars who overcome adversity, have financial need, demonstrate superior academic performance, and participate in community service. Scholarships range from $6,000 to $15,000.

Cruz Medina, a graduate student in Biology, was 8 years old when her family moved to Sacramento from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 2005.

“My mother always encouraged us to get an education,” she said. “She realized how important education and financial independence can be, especially for a woman. I wanted to be capable of making my own way in the world.”

After graduating from Grant Union High School, Cruz Medina attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Biology. “There weren’t many people who looked like me” in her program, she said, which “made me question whether I belonged.”

She chose Sacramento State to pursue her master’s and at first felt a bit lost.

“I didn’t really know anyone from my background who had entered a master’s program,” she said. “I didn’t even know what questions to ask of an advisor.”

In short order, though, Cruz Medina grew comfortable as a Hornet.

“Even though there aren’t a lot of people of color in my program, I still feel a sense of community,” she said. “It’s such a nurturing environment. The University and the professors really care about you and your education.”

Cruz Medina has excelled not only in the classroom but outside of it. She founded an organization, Pacers United, that helps seniors at her high school alma mater apply for college and financial aid. She also works as a research assistant with Environmental Studies Professor Michelle Stevens to restore wetland and riparian acreage at Bushy Lake along the lower American River.

“Carla is a shining example of what it means to be a Hornet,” President Robert S. Nelsen said. “She is an excellent scholar with a big heart.”

Biology Professor Timothy Davidson, who served as Cruz Medina’s advisor, called her highly motivated, curious, and enthusiastic about advancing her own goals and helping others.

“She is among the most collaborative, positive, and community-minded students I’ve worked with,” Davidson said. “She genuinely cares about others and our community, which explains why she is so well-regarded by her classmates and professors.”

As she advances in her education, Cruz Medina’s focuses are on ecology, conservation, and biostatistics. She hopes to parlay her knowledge into a career promoting fair treatment of all people in the development and implementation of environmental regulations and policies.

“My dream job would be an intersection of conservation and environmental justice,” she said. “I’m very passionate about those things.”

She believes that the CSU Trustees' Award will help her achieve her goals.

“As a first-generation college student, a woman, and a person of color, I know that finances are a huge barrier to earning a degree,” Cruz Medina said. “It’s something we don’t talk about enough. This scholarship will help me receive an education without having to go into immense debt. It will help ease my financial burden. That means a lot.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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