Jonathan Valenzuela Mejia hardly spoke French. Yet, the first-generation college student — traveling alone for the first time — was able to secure a studio apartment in the 8th arrondissement district of Paris, just steps away from the Arc de Triomphe.

It was a long way from UCLA, where the global studies and public affairs major would have been starting the fall quarter of his junior year. But the University of California Education Abroad Program put Valenzuela Mejia exactly where he needed to be to expand his worldview, discover a deeply personal cultural phenomenon and visualize the plight of his parents, who had emigrated from Guatemala to the United States in the 1990s.

For four months starting in August 2022, he studied at Sciences Po, also known as the Paris Institute of Political Studies. As one of about 50 UC students ready to fully immerse themselves in a different cultural and educational system — and to learn the language — the Bruin couldn’t have been more excited to be there.

“I just remember the first week in Europe with such affection and such love,” said Valenzuela Mejia, who graduates from UCLA this month with minors in Central American studies and in environmental systems and society. “It was a fun experience. I felt like a kid again, just seeing everything in the world for the first time.”

While traveling, he was struck by how many Central American immigrants live in Europe and decided to study this phenomenon. His research identified a rise in European pro-immigrant policies in relation to growing anti-immigrant hostility in the U.S. He also studied cultural similarities between Central America and countries such as Spain and Italy. The overarching topic, which he would use for his senior thesis, combined his experience abroad and his family’s lives and legacy — and allowed him to tap into a readily available resource.

“UCLA has some of the leading experts in Central American studies. Having had those professors and taken those classes, it kind of came all together,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is something I can research, and something I can honor my family and my own roots with — and I can also contribute to research in this growing field.’”

Valenzuela Mejia, who is from Richmond, California, said emigration had been on his mind since he arrived in France. He recalled being scared at first, when he realized he was now the immigrant.

“I’ve always understood it, but I never really got it until I was in Paris,” he said. “I called my dad crying and said, ‘I don’t know how you did it.’ He said, ‘You just have to push through.’”

Valenzuela Mejia credits the “buddy” program at Sciences Po, which hosts more than 2,200 exchange students each year, for helping him adapt. He fondly recalls being paired with a French student who helped the Bruin navigate a new society and city.

That spurred Valenzuela Mejia to lay the groundwork for a similar buddy program at UCLA. He has spent his fourth year working with the International Education Office and student government to implement a pilot program; he’s also met with exchange students to learn about their experiences assimilating while at UCLA.

“That’s what really changed my perspective when I came back — I had a whole new lens of understanding the difficulties and the struggles of emigrating to a different country,” said Valenzuela Mejia, who spoke at this year’s Latinx Welcome. “I want to help make a world where people don’t give up their identities and cultures when going through the natural process of migrating. I also hope to bring attention to the issues pushing them from their homes.”

The globe-trotter has been active in UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association Council, starting as an intern in the presidential office and advancing to internship director the following year. He’s also served as co-director for the council’s Retention First platform, which helps support Bruins from marginalized communities, among other leadership positions.

Valenzuela Mejia sees serving in student-run organizations as another way of “lifting up” his family in California and Guatemala. It’s all part of representing himself as the first in his family to graduate with a college degree from a U.S. institution. “I carried all of that when I made the decision to come to UCLA, and I’m very happy I did,” he said.

And there’s no doubt his immediate family will make the trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to Westwood to watch commencement, the Regents Scholar says: “My dad said he’s not missing it for the world.”