It took a while for Samantha Gallegos’ dad to understand that her effort to graduate from UCLA with a double major in political science and labor studies was something to be excited about — that the entire undertaking would not cost double the tuition.

“Once my parents understood that, they were very excited,” Gallegos said. Her parents might be even more pleased because Gallegos will have earned those two degrees in just three years.

Gallegos is a member of the first generation in her family to attend college. She said her commencement on June 16 will be a definitive moment for her dad, who emigrated from Mexico, and her mom, from El Salvador, to accept that she is truly independent. But achieving that sense of independence took a little longer than Gallegos expected, because her UCLA experience coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Gallegos was living at home and taking courses remotely for the beginning of her undergraduate career.

“If I had had a normal first year, it would have clicked a bit faster,” she said. “But since I was at home, and it was more of a transitional phase, it was more gradual.”

Like others who graduated from high school in 2020 — with COVID restrictions in place — Gallegos had a challenging senior year. Hers is a multigenerational household, and to maintain social distancing, she, her brother, her parents, and her grandparents would alternate use of the kitchen.

For six months, she communicated with her boyfriend and other friends only through FaceTime. For her “senior prom,” she and her boyfriend dressed up but stayed in their own homes and played “Club Penguin” online. Gallegos’ high school graduation was a drive-through affair.

Courtesy of Samantha Gallegos
Especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, finding community — as she did with other resident advisors — was a key part of Gallegos’ undergraduate experience.

So even with instruction and activities taking place online during her first year at UCLA, Gallegos committed herself to getting involved in campus life and finding new, supportive communities. She attended as many virtual open houses for UCLA student groups as she could, which she said helped her make the eventual adjustment to being an in-person student.

At UCLA, Gallegos received an Edward Scott Morrison scholarship — an award available to full-time undergraduates who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual. As part of the scholarship, she volunteered at the UCLA LGBTQ Center and conducted allyship trainings throughout the year, and she served as an office operations intern at the center.

She also has been a resident advisor for two years and she mentored high school students through the nonprofit Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC Schools. All of those positions have given her the opportunity to help others, particularly first-generation students, face challenges they encounter.

A key part of her experience as a mentor has been speaking to fellow students about burnout, and encouraging them to proactively seek supportive resources and communities on campus, rather than waiting until a crisis occurs.

Courtesy of Samantha Gallegos
Gallegos (left, middle row) with staff members of the LGBTQ Center.

“Coming from a big family, you always know someone who knows someone who can help you,” Gallegos said. “A school like UCLA amplifies what I can do to help others. As my family members helped each other, I hope to do that with a professional lens on a broader scale.”

This summer, Gallegos will intern for the International Court of Justice in the Hague, learning about international human rights law and the prosecuting of genocide and other crimes against humanity. After she returns to Los Angeles, she will begin working as an assistant resident director at UCLA. And, eventually, she plans to apply to law school.

“I want to use my own experiences and hardships to help others,” Gallegos said. “I like working with my community and giving back in some way. I will continue to combine my experiences with the privileges of education to uplift voices and open doors for others.”