Angelina Barrera (23) is making waves in the city of San Diego with her passion for students. She is an English as a second language (ESL) student advocate specialist for Southwestern College.

Through her experience with education as both a student and an educator, she became increasingly passionate about the role educational institutions have in creating spaces for students who speak English as a second language in navigating new cultures. For Barrera, home is not just in the house, but in the spaces we grow. Her journey as a student mentor began over 13 years ago.

Before starting as a student, she experienced a lifestyle change when she moved from Tijuana, Mexico.

“At the time I was 18 years old,” Barrerra said. “Despite the fact that I was born in Chula Vista, my entire childhood and adolescence was in Tijuana.” 

Angelian Barrera receives recognition from Bob Brower at PLNU graduation

She explained that as her parents pursued their U.S. residency, their family moved from Tijuana to San Diego. As she started to build her new life,  Barrera was struggling to navigate U.S. culture and language, which continued when she started attending Southwestern College. However, she soon found a deep fulfillment in education and the people who were ready and willing to help her. 

During her undergraduate years, she was accepted into a student position working in the financial aid office. Taking on this job gave her a great opportunity to learn while still growing her English vocabulary. When she talks about her experience, she makes it clear that her undergraduate career welcomed and guided into her next stage of life. 

“Southwestern College is my second home,” Barrera said. “This community college opened its doors to me when I moved to the U.S. I have learned so much throughout my journey [there] I have learned how to become a student and a professional at the same time.” 

In her years after undergrad, Barrera started studying for her master’s in higher education at PLNU. She explained that the mentors and support she encountered helped to open her up to new opportunities, including Ricardo Ramos, Ph.D., the program director for the M.A./M.S. in Higher Education.

“I feel like I have become a more compassionate person,” Barrera said. “I had amazing professors and mentors, and extremely caring directors in my [higher education] program. I am so thankful for all the support that Dr. Ricardo Ramos has given me during my time at PLNU in the [Master’s in] Higher Education [program]. He is such an amazing, caring person!”

“When I saw the opening published, I did not think twice. I knew right away that this is meant to be for me.”

During this time, Barrera had the opportunity to take on her current role at Southwestern College as an ESL student advocate specialist. In this position, she provides support to students who are trying to navigate higher education in a non-primary language and culture. She described her main goals as being to “guide, coach, and support the community of English language learners throughout their college journey.”

“It is not common to have advocates at community college level who serve the community of ESL students, which is why this position is key to the success of non-English speaking students in college,” Barrera said. “When I saw the opening published, I did not think twice. I knew right away that this is meant to be for me.” 

Having an ESL student advocate specialist is a great way for colleges and universities  to provide extra resources for students. Barrera advocates for mentors to go above and beyond in their position of leadership. 

“[A mentor for students] in a very complex society needs to be a person who is passionate about helping others and really cares about the students’ well-being,” she said. “Someone who is willing to go above and beyond to help this community of students, ESL students or any students in general.” 

Angelina Barrera receives  People's Choice Award as a Pioneer In Education

As time went on, the welcome that she experienced in her college education became a goal for each student she met in her work. Barrera continues to work as an ESL student mentor to provide the same welcome environment that she received as a student. 

Her dedication to cultivating this space for her community was recently recognized on November 2, 2023, when Barrera was awarded the 2023 Pioneer in Education award through the San Diego Magazine’s event, “Celebrating Women Summit.” This panel awarded 31 women leaders in San Diego with individual awards recognizing their impact in San Diego. 

The 2023 Pioneer in Education award is given to an individual who has and continues to carve a path to a brighter future. This is someone who is regarded as an expert in their industry, and is seen as a mentor. To Barrera, this means that she has made an impact in the field of education for her community. “I feel so flattered and honored to have been selected among other amazing, smart, and talented women,” Barrera said.

So what does a brighter future look like to Barrera? She believes that it is essential for ESL students to be considered as the world of education becomes more digitized.

“I hope that colleges and universities do not forget about non-traditional students [who] will always need extra support and motivation to continue their education,” Barrera said. “All students deserve to have the best education and opportunities.”

Specifically, Barrera points out that increasing the amount of free online resources and e-books available for students in online programs could assist them in an increasingly digital world. 

“All students deserve to have the best education and opportunities.”

After graduating from PLNU with a Masters in Higher Education in December 2023, Barrera intends to continue learning, and she plans to study Organizational Leadership at PLNU. 

Her story reflects that difficulty can be a way to become a better version of yourself, especially with the correct guidance. Barrera sees educational institutions as not just a place to attend classes, but a place for every student from any situation to have a chance to grow. The support that educational institutions give to their students carves for them the footholds to climb their way to a stronger foundation through adversity. 

“Not being able to speak the language and understand the U.S. education system has been a great challenge,” she remembers. “However, my barriers motivated me to continue learning and to push harder to be successful in college and in life in general.”

ESL group photo
Elizabeth Jordan (21) is a Concert Choir alumni who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in psychology from PLNU. While pursuing her degree, she added classes in writing and biology to research different ways of connection and communication. She is passionate about exploring philosophy and psychology through writing and writes stories to start conversations in the community.