Doc Students, Alumni Receive Fellowship to Prepare Future Cal State Faculty

July 14, 2022
Clockwise from top left: Horg-Aaron, Nealon, Paredes and Garcia.

Two current students and two recent alumni from the San Diego State University College of Education are recipients of a prestigious California State University (CSU) fellowship that will further their dreams of pursuing careers in academia. 

Denise Villarrial Nealon and Griselda Paredes, students in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Education with Claremont Graduate University, and Fernando Garcia (’17) and Cassandra Horg-Aaron (’20), alumni of the Postsecondary Educational Leadership: Specialization in Student Affairs (PELSA) master’s program, were accepted into the Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program (CDIP) for 2022-23. They were among seven SDSU-affiliated fellows among the cohort’s 67 members. 

CDIP aims to train promising doctoral students for CSU faculty positions. The program offers financial support to attend and present at conferences, mentorship from a faculty advisor, professional development and networking opportunities with past fellows.

Both Garcia and Horg-Aaron are part of Associate Professor Marissa Vasquez’s SEMILLAS research team and they will be mentored by Vasquez throughout the CDIP program. Nealon will be mentored by JDP director Marva Cappello while Paredes has chosen Felisha Herrera Villarreal, associate professor in the Department of Administration, Rehabilitation and Postsecondary Education. 

Fernando Garcia 

Garcia, who is currently in UCLA’s higher education and organizational change Ph.D. program, is passionate about making the higher education system more equitable for underrepresented students. He is well aware of the odds staring him down in his own dreams to become an academic — and that’s exactly why being selected as a CDIP fellow carries so much significance for him. 
“Looking nationally, Latinx faculty make up only 4 percent of the tenure-track faculty that exist,” Garcia said. “So to have the California State University system support my hope to possibly be a faculty member in the future, it's super rewarding, and it makes me feel like the work I have been doing is being acknowledged.” 
That work first took shape in the PELSA program under the guidance of Vasquez, who gave Garcia his first opportunity to conduct research. Working with SDSU’s Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), he studied the experiences of community college transfer students — a path he could relate to as a community college transfer and first-generation college student himself. 
“Dr. Vasquez was my first Latina faculty member and the first time I saw myself represented in what faculty could be,” Garcia said. “She was the one who encouraged me to explore a Ph.D. program. I started realizing that maybe I can shift my professional path to do work that will continue changing the structures and systems that unfortunately inhibit a lot of minoritized students in trying to get their education.” 

Cassandra Horg-Aaron 

Horg-Aaron is now in the educational psychology Ph.D. program at University of North Texas, where she specializes in research, measurement and statistics. She loves how research gives her the opportunity to tell powerful stories through numbers and quotes and make complicated concepts accessible to others. 
Her journey into becoming an education researcher started in an unlikely place — SDSU’s hospitality and tourism management program, where she earned her bachelor’s degree and discovered her love of peer coaching. That led her to pursue the PELSA program, where she completed a thesis and was offered the chance to teach in the College of Education’s leadership minor by program director Lisa Gates
“Doing that, I fell in love with teaching and being in the classroom,” Horg-Aaron said. “I just kind of ended up falling into wanting to become a professor. It was through trial and error and opportunities to teach (provided by) the PELSA program.” 
Making this fellowship more special to Horg-Aaron is her strong affinity for the CSU. A native of Fresno, she was able to leave home and attend SDSU because of CSU’s educational benefits for the children of servicemembers. 
“My transformative experiences have all been through the CSU,” she said. “So to be awarded a CDIP fellow with the intention of going back and being a faculty member at the CSU, I could not be more honored.” 

Denise Villarrial Nealon 

A native of North San Diego County, Nealon embarked on her current path at MiraCosta College as a 40-year-old adult re-entry student and first-generation college student. She was a domestic violence survivor and a newly single mother of three. Her education as an adolescent had been a negative experience, part of a troubled youth that still occasionally kindles her self-doubt. 
“I'm that kid that wasn't going to make it,” Nelson recalls. “I remember one of my teachers when I was growing up told me, ‘If you even make it past a certain age, I'll be surprised.’ I started thinking maybe she was right.” 
Step by step, Nealon began to prove everyone — including herself — wrong. 
She entered MiraCosta with hopes of becoming a bookkeeper but she found herself drawn to sociology. She soon discovered a passion and a purpose: working to dismantle and rebuild systems that perpetuate inequality. Nealon earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology at Cal State San Marcos, which led to teaching positions at MiraCosta and Miramar College. 
She applied to SDSU’s JDP program in 2021, immediately connecting with a program committed to democratic schooling, social justice and equitable educational outcomes for all students. Supported by the fellowship, she now hopes to make the CSU her permanent home. 
“This will hopefully unlock that pathway to doing what I want to do,” Nealon said. “I can't change the world, but what if I am that one drop in the ocean that creates a ripple for a student who is going to change the world? I think it's those ripples that can become a big tsunami.” 

Griselda Paredes 

Early in her college experience, Paredes admits to being scared of the word “research” and she saw being a scientist as something that was unattainable. But the more she learned about social research and the power of storytelling, her perception began to change. 
What finally hit home for the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants was the concept of research as a form of ethical chisme (gossip). 
“That really resonated with me because the concept of chisme is something that’s culturally relevant,” Paredes explained. “It’s like, ‘This scholar said this, but then this scholar said that.’ That’s the way I like to demystify it to my students.” 
Paredes, who is starting her second year in the JDP, is now inspired to study the experiences of Latinx students in higher education. She also serves as a researcher for Herrera Villarreal’s Center for Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE) . 
Last year, Paredes did all that while working as a fulltime student affairs Retention Specialist at the College of San Mateo and teaching a course at her alma mater, Chico State. For now, though, she’s decided to put her student affairs career on hold while she pursues a new dream through the CDIP fellowship. 
“I feel very honored, fortunate and grateful that scholars at the chancellor's level, and also at our institutional level, recognized my potential as future faculty,” she said. “I feel inspired with the idea of engaging in knowledge production.”