Emelin Vivar has been making films since her freshman year of high school when she started a YouTube channel for fun and edited videos for her school. Her vice principal started calling her “Spielberg.” She kept at it and two years later, she participated in the UCLA Institute of Environmental and Sustainability’s GreenShorts program, a short-film contest for high school students. Her film, “Non Supponunt” — that she describes as a “three-minute history of time told by Mother Earth” — won second place.

But to her UCLA mentor in the program, then-senior Venezia Ramirez, Vivar was a winner.

During the program, Vivar impressed Ramirez with her ideas about film and environmental justice. And as they worked together Ramirez saw a bit of her younger self, a young Latina woman from South Los Angeles who had dreams of expanding her experiences at a university.

“I could have never dreamed of attending UCLA if I had not met a Latina student like Venezia,” Vivar said.

During their weekly talks, Vivar said she remembers Ramirez telling her about how after graduating from UCLA she wanted to work for NASA some day and or conduct research to address environmental inequities affecting her community.

“It was my dream school since then,” said Vivar, a first-generation college student who along with everyone else on campus welcomed the start of the fall quarter on Sept. 23.

Vivar credits her arrival on campus in part to Ramirez, who extended her mentorship beyond GreenShorts, encouraging Vivar to apply to UCLA, helping her with her application and financial aid and giving her tours of campus — an experience that had a big impact.

“It’s not really L.A.-ish, at least compared to where I live,” Vivar said of campus. “It’s just so green and so beautiful.”

To help Vivar see that UCLA was not just a dream school, but an attainable goal, Ramirez told her about the resources available to her while she navigated the enrollment process as a student from an under-resourced community.

“Living there, we face a lot of the same adversities,” said Ramirez, who graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s in environmental science. Among the challenges they both faced, a lack of financial literacy education when it came to things like financial aid, and at-times ambivalent college counselors.

Emelin Vivar
Idriss Njike/UCLA
Emelin Vivar

Vivar said that she is excited for an academic experience that contrasts her high school one: four years riddled with frequent turnover among teachers and administrators, a counselor stretched thin and limited access to things like AP courses. Vivar, who was class president as a junior and senior, said she thinks that most schools in her community emphasize attendance more than they seem to stress academics.

It wasn’t until Vivar got one-on-one tutoring through South Central Youth Empowered thru Action, or SCYEA, that she started to feel like a competitive college applicant.

“It definitely helped me a lot and I’m so grateful to them,” she said of the program, which describes itself as a group of Black and Latinx youth working together to improve the conditions of South Los Angeles schools.

In addition to her involvement with SCYEA, Vivar was a community health youth advocate through a program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science her senior year. She was also team captain of her high school’s mock trial group, a fellow at Ghetto Film School, a program that bridges the gap between the film industry and youth, and volunteer with the Community Coalition.

With that kind of dedication to serving her community, Ramirez isn’t surprised that Vivar is at UCLA, a university that strongly encourages students to work in local communities through service learning and volunteer projects.

“She created this space on her own and she really is a trailblazer,” Ramirez said.

Vivar looks forward to beginning her education at UCLA to help her fulfill her long-term goal of uplifting her community. She’s also looking forward to someday being a successful Latina in law and film, her two study areas at UCLA.

“I remember thinking that both careers would be impossible for someone from a background like mine,” said Vivar, who plans to major in political science and minor in film. “But now that I have made it to UCLA — a school I could only dream of a few years ago — I know that I have quite a future ahead of me.”

Vivar knows that such a path will require a deep dive into political science at UCLA, likely followed by law school. She’s excited for both, and also for just doing undergraduate things, like rooming at Sproul Hall on the Hill and making new friends.

But Ramirez, while excited for Vivar’s start at UCLA, cautions that the struggles are not over. Still, Ramirez remains hopeful.

“For her to stay in is just as equally as important,” said Ramirez, who has seen too many peers from her community come to UCLA only to drop out because they didn’t know about the resources available to them. 

“With her background and the adversity that she’s faced, she’ll help others follow suit,” Ramirez said. “She’s absolutely amazing when given the opportunity.”