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Dean’s Award 2024 – Persistence, determination paid off for Eileen Garcia-Fuentes

Eileen Garcia-Fuentes, a Microbiology major, is the Dean's Award winner for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. (Sacramento State Student Affairs/Hazart Sanker)

Growing up in a tiny southern Merced County town, Eileen Garcia-Fuentes was an outstanding student who excelled in her honors courses and graduated near the top of her class.

But college seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. Her family struggled financially, and none of her close relatives had pursued higher education. Many labored in farm fields to earn a living.

It was one of her teachers who convinced her that she could realize her dream. He, too, grew up in a small agricultural community and had earned a degree.

“I figured that if he could do it, so could I,” Garcia-Fuentes said.

Last December, Garcia-Fuentes graduated with a Microbiology degree and a 3.8 GPA, and is the recipient of this year’s Dean’s Award for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Deans’ Awards are given at Commencement to the top graduating student from each of Sac State’s seven academic colleges.

Garcia-Fuentes plans to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology at UC Davis, and ultimately to study health issues in historically underserved groups.

As a young child living in the small town of Dos Palos, Garcia-Fuentes and her mother entertained themselves by visiting swap meets, where she typically gravitated to science books and toys.

“I got a microscope once,” she recalled. “It didn’t work, but I still liked having it.”

“I get so proud when I see my lab members do something amazing. Seeing students grow into scientists, fostering their pursuit for knowledge and helping them inspired me to pursue graduate studies.” -- Eileen Garcia-Fuentes

Garcia-Fuentes’ academic success is not surprising to Felix Angel, the teacher who inspired her to attend college.

“Eileen took the most challenging math classes our school offered, including AP Calculus, even though many of her contemporaries wanted an easier path,” Angel said.

“What stood out for me with Eileen was her maturity in taking academic criticism, humility with her success in my classes, and good-natured humor with her classmates and myself,” Angel said. “It sounds like Eileen continued to develop these qualities and more when she went to university.”

The transition to college wasn’t easy for Garcia-Fuentes. With a student body far larger than her hometown, Sac State “was pretty overwhelming at first,” she said.  But she adjusted, and her first Biology class convinced her that she was on the right path.

Under Professor of Biology Jamie Kneitel, Garcia-Fuentes learned the basics of research and data analysis, and became proficient in scientific language. At a Sac State science symposium, she won second place for her study addressing the survival of fairy shrimp.

Later, she joined Professor Chris Lopez’s microbiology lab, studying organisms in wild fermented apple cider, and presented her work at national conferences. She authored a study that was published in a respected microbiology journal.

In addition to her classes and lab work, Garcia-Fuentes mentored her fellow students, ultimately becoming a teaching assistant.

“I get so proud when I see my lab members do something amazing,” she said. “Seeing students grow into scientists, fostering their pursuit for knowledge and helping them inspired me to pursue graduate studies.”

In nominating her for the Dean’s Award, Lopez praised Garcia-Fuentes as intelligent, committed and resourceful.

“It has been one of the great joys of my career to watch Eileen transform through her experiences as a researcher, teaching assistant and friend,” Lopez said.

One day, Garcia-Fuentes hopes to return to the CSU as a professor running her own lab.

“I’m so thankful for the constant support I have received from the Sacramento State faculty,” she said.

“They believed in my capabilities as a student and a researcher. They embraced my background and gave me the confidence to claim my story. They never turned me away when I needed help.”

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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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