Valeria Coronado is thinking about connections.

Set to receive her degree in labor studies and selected as the student speaker for her department’s graduation ceremony, she’s also thinking about the ways in which vulnerable workers are often disconnected from the wealth that their work generates.

And, with her sights set on law school, she’s thinking about how she might be able to create connections among those workers, the goods they produce and the policies that might better protect them.

“The classes in the labor studies major really create an opening for students to see how their experience and their family’s experience — personally or in the workplace — relate to one another and the world,” Coronado said. “It creates a common ground.”

The daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, Coronado transferred to UCLA from community college. She came to her academic purpose after years of working in the garment industry, a job she began after high school, in part to help support her family.

“I witnessed a lot of labor exploitation and a lot of unfair practices that occurred in the workplace,” she said. “At one point, I really had a conversation with myself about whether this was something that I wanted to be a part of.”

Deciding she needed to make a shift, Coronado went back for a second try at community college. And she started to find her place. As a political science major at East Los Angeles College, Coronado delved into Chicano studies.

“That really began to develop my analysis of my own experience as a woman of color, as a worker and also as a student,” she said. “That‘s where I tapped into the energy of being a student, and when I knew the type of work I wanted to do.”

At East Los Angeles, Coronado took advantage of programs and activities that would eventually lead her to the UCLA Labor Studies program. She participated in the California Law Pathways program, which provides a pipeline for underrepresented students to law school or law-related careers.

The program inspired Coronado to volunteer at legal aid clinics and other organizations that provide legal help to communities. And she participated in legal aid workshops at East Los Angeles, working as a legal assistant and translator for students and members of the community.

“Through assisting attorneys, I believed a career in law was possible for me,” she said.

And even before she transferred to UCLA, Coronado had the opportunity to visit the campus and connect with mentors through the UCLA Center for Community College Partnerships, which is operated by UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program. Once she became a Bruin, she has paid that experience forward by working as a student services support aide in labor studies, connecting her fellow students to the resources they need to thrive.

The labor studies program turned out to be a perfect match for Coronado’s academic interests, especially given her nontraditional path to UCLA..

She has served as a junior assistant for an oral history project on the Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios, which seeks to highlight the history of the Salvadoran student movement in California. She is a part of the 2021–22 Astin Community Engaged Scholars program, through which she studied the intersections of labor and systems of incarceration.

“Valeria has an extraordinary work ethic and a passion for social justice that embody the goals of our program,” said Saúl Sarabia, an adjunct faculty member who runs the community scholars course for labor studies. “She is a change agent who inspires other people to work for change.”

In addition, she has supported immigrant rights in Southern California through her work as a child advocate for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, and with Al Otro Lado, where she assisted asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border.

Although it wasn’t always easy to make connections with other Bruins — thanks mostly to virtual classes during the pandemic — Coronado treasures the ones she did make. The labor studies curriculum, she said, improved her abilities to listen to others, to support them, to tell their stories and to ensure those stories become part of a larger collective.

While at UCLA, she also completed an internship with the state Labor Commissioner’s Office, where she worked on community outreach around the implementation of California SB 62. The law outlaws the so-called piece-rate system, which allowed companies to pay garment workers per piece of clothing they produced, as opposed to an hourly rate or annual salary. 

“It’s a challenging time, but also an exciting one for labor, and just in general,” she said. “I’m hoping that this year’s graduates can optimize what they have learned at UCLA and connect that with the work they do in the world, because I think we’re living in a historic time, and it’s like, what side of history do you want to be on?”