One February day in 2022, following her shift at a mental health agency, Diana Rinza couldn’t shake off an excruciating headache.

She made it home, but went in and out of consciousness while her family called for an ambulance. But the EMT looked at her history of anxiety and hesitated to take her in. He thought it was a panic attack.

Her daughter called Alpa Patel, her boss at the agency, to help advocate for her. Patel, who is also a psychiatrist, insisted it wasn’t a panic attack. Her husband, who only spoke Spanish, also tried to convey that this was not normal. Eventually, EMTs transported her, but the pain continued and the hospital in the San Fernando Valley delayed seeing her.

This time her daughter called Erica Lubliner, another psychiatrist and friend. She and Patel both insisted Rinza’s doctors conduct a CT scan.

The results: She had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm.

Rinza, who graduates this spring, spoke of her experience at a visioning forum for the Hispanic Serving Institution initiative as an undergraduate voice for the “Testimonios: Yo soy HSI” panel.

She acknowledges how lucky she is to be alive. If not for the interventions and advocacy by her family and friends, she may have died. She also might not have made it to UCLA without them.

Born in Mexico City but raised in Southern California, Rinza returned to her birthplace to get a degree in anthropology, a field that her grandmother and father also studied. Economic circumstances prevented her from finishing the program, however, and she moved back to California after getting married and becoming a mother. Later she would go back to school, attending community college and earning her associates degree while working as a medical interpreter and administrative manager and raising her family.

Just a few months before her aneurysm, Lubliner had helped change Rinza’s life in a different way, encouraging her to go beyond the work she was doing and to pursue higher education more deeply.

“It really does take one person to see you, or to see your potential, and push you through,” Rinza said.

She applied to different programs and while she was healing, she was accepted into and chose to go to UCLA.

But for this mother of three in her 40s who commutes from the San Fernando Valley, navigating the campus and its systems was not easy.

“I remember feeling very uncomfortable and very insecure, which is not really who I am as a person,” Rinza said about her first year here. “I’ve worked with difficult clients and was comfortable doing different things. Going back to school as an adult just triggered so many insecurities.”

She started by tapping into the non-traditional student network, Students with Dependents Program, the UCLA Transfer Center and the Center for Community College Partnerships. She also eventually found her way into an informal GroupMe where other nontraditional students, who represented a range of different backgrounds, came together to share information.

Increasing financial aid, meal vouchers, case management, the newest restroom – no topic was off the table. Some would even get together for self-care walks or to discuss how hard it was to be both a student and a parent. It helped Rinza to have this space where people understood where she was coming from and feeling like they didn’t have it all together.

“We are people from all walks of life. Everybody is trying to figure it out,” she said.

The GroupMe has grown to more than 100 people, and hopes to formalize the community so that more students can be connected.

Diana Rinza and her grandmother, Estela Fernandez, who recently passed away.
Courtesy of Diana Rinza
Diana Rinza and her grandmother, Estela Fernandez, who recently passed away. Fernandez also studied anthropology — and returned to school after raising seven children.

Rinza carries it forward, being open when people approach her with questions and grabbing coffee with other students to help them get through.

She wants them to know that “I see you. And you’re not alone. I feel like we all need that.”

As Rinza pursued her undergraduate degree in anthropology, she continued to support and create community by engaging in different spaces around campus. At the UCLA Health Spanish-speaking Pyschosocial Clinic, she reunited with Lubliner to conduct ethnographic research and to help Latino and immigrant patients in Los Angeles County as they navigate their health care. She also joined the HSI initiative's retention and belonging subcommittee.

Rinza was part of the Lemelson Undergraduate Anthropological Honors Program and participated in this year’s Undergraduate Research Week and presented her work at a conference.

She hopes to one day sit at the table where important medical and mental health policy is decided. She understands and has experienced the different barriers to care, whether that’s linguistic or structural, and wants to show the nuances that need to be considered for care to be more humane and humanistic.

“I want to bring to the table different questions about how culture can be seen not as an element of deficiency, but as an opportunity to connect and to connect with the diverse communities that live in Los Angeles,” Rinza said.

As she gears up to start the Ph.D program in medical and psychological anthropology this fall, her journey moves toward a full-circle moment. Her grandmother, the one who first instilled a curiosity and love for anthropology, had also gone back to school after raising her seven children.

Rinza was able to tell her grandmother, who wasn’t able to personally practice anthropology after earning a degree, that she got into the Ph.D program before she recently passed away.

“Life is magical that way.”