Leydy Diossa-Jimenez is a survivor of difficult circumstances.
As a child in Colombia, she witnessed murder and mayhem on a regular basis. In her late 20s, her adversary was no longer the drug cartels, but an extremely rare form of cancer.
A UCLA Ph.D. student, sociologist and scholar of international migration in Latin America, Diossa-Jimenez didn’t make it on her own. She believes she owes her life to her husband, family and friends, including her oncologist and the faculty and staff who together helped her overcome challenges that would have otherwise broken her.
“They are my angels,” she said.
The admiration goes both ways.
“Leydy is quite an extraordinary young woman — as a person and as a burgeoning researcher and teacher,” said Gail Kligman, distinguished professor of sociology and former associate vice provost of the UCLA International Institute. “Her intellectual and emotional resilience is exemplary; she’s a role model for so many people.”
Diossa-Jimenez was born in 1981 during turbulent times in Viterbo, Colombia, where people were losing their jobs and livelihoods due to an economic war with Brazil over the coffee trade. In her own family, her grandfather, the town’s mayor, sunk into bankruptcy.
Even more devastating was the rise of the illegal drug trade, which subjected the townspeople to intimidation and rampant violence.
“The first recollections of my childhood were of dead bodies, gunmen, people being killed, the sight of blood,” she said. “I was trained by my mother on how to survive a shooting.”
A training ground for hit men, Viterbo became known as the most dangerous town in Latin America. The town was also close to a major shipping route for drugs. Many of her acquaintances later died at the hands of the cartels, married drug dealers or took up the drug trade themselves. “Either you become part of it or you flee,” she said.
When her father was nearly killed over the theft of his motorcycle, he crossed the border into California, followed later by a 6-year-old Diossa-Jimenez and her mother. The family squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment in Panorama City — about 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles — with four relatives. Although life was difficult — her father worked 90 to 100 hours a week at two jobs, while she helped her mother clean houses — Diossa-Jimenez said, “I found a lot of peace, compared to what was going on in Colombia.”
But her stay in L.A. was short-lived. Her mother — who was shaken by the racial tensions caused by the 1992 L.A. riots — was homesick for Colombia. They returned to their homeland and moved to a safer town, where Diossa-Jimenez attended a private Catholic school.
“My mom invested about 67% of the household income in my high school education,” Diossa-Jimenez said. That paid off when she was admitted to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the best university in the country. After receiving her undergraduate degree in sociology, she earned a fellowship to complete her master’s degree.
Overcoming the odds in order to give back
In 2007, she returned to L.A. and joined a nonprofit, working with Superior Court judges and staff to reduce the recidivism rate of those convicted of DUIs.
By 2012, Diossa-Jimenez and her new husband, Juan Delgado, a fellow student from Colombia, were both admitted to the Ph.D. program in sociology at UCLA.
Midway through her first year, her dream of a doctorate was nearly shattered. She discovered she had a tumor the size of an orange on her left ovary. After surgery, the news got even worse: Doctors found other tumors in her abdomen and diagnosed her with advanced appendix cancer — a rare disease that strikes only one in 1 million.
To survive, Diossa-Jimenez endured 12 cycles of chemotherapy and six surgeries, including an invasive 12-hour procedure in which her abdominal cavity was washed with a hot chemotherapy solution.
Fortunately, she had by her side Dr. John Glaspy — “the best oncologist in the western United States,” she proclaimed. Glaspy holds the Estelle, Ab, and Marjorie Sanders Endowed Chair in Cancer Research and directs both the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center Clinical Research Unit and the center’s women’s cancer research program.
Although she was advised to take a leave of absence from UCLA during her treatment, “I had no option but to continue in the Ph.D. program,” she said. “Otherwise, I would have lost my health insurance.”
And she was not willing to leave UCLA: “I had worked too hard to get there, coming out of nowhere, and now I don’t get to enjoy this? That was not going to happen.”
She readily admits, “If somebody doubts that I can do something, that only propels me forward and gives me a breath of fresh air to say, ‘I can do this.’”
With people in the sociology department rallying around her, Diossa-Jimenez was able to remain a part-time student while also spending 40 hours a week in treatment and recovery.
“Once Leydy survived a form of cancer that few patients survive, she reintegrated herself into graduate studies,” said César Ayala, a sociology professor who calls her “the best T.A. I have ever had in my 18-plus years at UCLA. She is, put simply, a spectacular T.A. who regularly receives the highest student evaluations.”
As a research assistant to Professor Cecilia Menjívar, Diossa-Jimenez showed “fantastic analytical and intellectual skills,” said the professor. “She maintains an upbeat attitude, a steadfast commitment to her work and a thirst for knowledge and genuine interest in her projects. … It’s easy to forget the challenges she has had to overcome.”
With support from a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, Diossa-Jimenez traveled to Mexico, Argentina and Colombia to study how governments respond to emigrants’ demands to be incorporated into the political arena. She is now doing comparative historical research around issues of voting rights for those living abroad, dual citizenship and political representation.
While currently writing her dissertation, she serves as a fellowship coordinator, guiding graduate students through the complex and competitive application process for national fellowships. It’s her way of giving back.
“Some people think they are the outcome of their own efforts,” she said. “They think if you work hard, you can make it. Well, that’s partially true. But I wouldn’t be alive today, and I wouldn’t be a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, without all those who helped me.”
Diossa-Jimenez looks forward to working as a scholar and professor who can reduce the gap between the scholarly production of knowledge and the use of this knowledge for policy purposes. One major goal is to improve participation of Latin American minorities — particularly women — in electoral politics in their respective homelands.