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Q&A with Outstanding Graduates: Spring 2012

COLFA produces artists, researchers, educators and community leaders – individuals with the ability to look critically at the world and the compassion to change it for the better. This statement couldn’t be truer for Carolina Canizales and Vasiliki Kiageri, two inspiring graduates who have taken their vocations to heart and laid before themselves paths of outstanding academic achievement and community dedication.

Dreaming of a Better Future for Immigrants

Carolina Canizales with mentor John Phillip Santos after her Honors College commencement ceremony.

Carolina Canizales was 10 when she came to the US from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant. Both her mother and older sister worked tirelessly to make it possible for Carolina to attend college. She began her academic career at University of the Incarnate Word and transferred to UTSA as a sophomore, where she majored in Communication and received guidance from accomplished author-journalist-filmmaker and UTSA Distinguished Scholar John Phillip Santos.

The mentorship culminated in a collaborative honors thesis on undocumented workers in the US, a feat Carolina pulled off while graduating from the Honors College with a 3.8 GPA.

As a first-generation immigrant, can you describe your experience in higher education?
I had many hardships since I wasn’t able to apply for loans or financial aid. I didn’t have a car and couldn’t be employed in the US. My background motivated me to become an activist and organizer for the DREAM Act (a bill that if passed will grant a path to legalization for undocumented students brought to the US as minors), since I know there are many undocumented students in San Antonio that are being discouraged from completing higher education.

Can you tell us about the Honors College thesis you collaborated on with Prof. John Phillip Santos?
My thesis focused on images of the inmigrante (Mexican Immigrant), jornalero (daily and domestic worker) and DREAMer (Dream Act activist or undocumented student) and how they have a long history of misrepresentation in mainstream American culture.

As an immigrant, part-time jornalera and DREAM Act activist myself, I’ve struggled to find an accurate reflection of my identity in society. The purpose of my thesis was to explain how border history and politics directly affect cultural views of these three social groups, and ultimately to introduce these subjects as key elements of globalization and universal rights.

How would you describe the purpose your work?
As a young immigrant who succeeded in graduating from college, I serve as a reminder to undocumented students of their right to attain their goals and dreams. I hope my story will inspire first-generation immigrants and Hispanics to pursue higher education, especially in districts like SAISD (San Antonio Independent School District).

I think our city currently faces a crisis in high school dropouts and I can’t emphasize enough how much UTSA has done to serve as a public access for higher education in our community. We’re going to Tier One and I think the talent and capacity for us to be at that level is definitely present in San Antonio. We just need to keep providing financial resources and support for future generations.

My goal is to raise awareness within UTSA and our community that there are many DREAM Act eligible youth in this city. They too are young, talented and eager to pursue a profession, but because of a broken immigration system these students are not legally recognized or accepted into society. Even though many of them could be a great asset to our city’s economy and global profile, they’re kept in the shadows. There are many such students at UTSA and we ought to be aware of them and support their opportunities for success.

What are your plans for the future?
This summer I’ll be interning at the The Rivard Report, where I’ll be working on photography, social media and story writing. I’m also working on graduate school applications. I’d love to pursue a Ph.D. in Communication Studies or Ethnic Studies.

Do you have any final words for young students in your position?
No matter how impossible things may seem, you are possible. Remember that "I'M- possible." This is what kept me going even when everything was against me.

Seeking Answers to Social Dysfunction

Vasiliki Kiageri at work in Dr. Ephrem Fernandez's Emotion and Sensation Lab

Vasiliki Kiageri grew up in Greece, where you get one shot at college upon graduating from secondary school. Instead of taking the higher-ed route Vasiliki decided to turn the tables and become an English teacher — an experience she found extremely fulfilling. But it wasn’t long before her longing for new knowledge led her to San Antonio (her aunt and uncle had recently moved here) and UTSA, where she promptly enrolled as a Psychology major to follow her dream of becoming a psychologist.

Vasiliki’s major area of interest lies in studying the causes of personality disorder, a path she’s explored under the mentorship of Dr. Ephrem Fernandez and hopes will help her find solutions to extreme psychosocial dysfunctions such as narcissism and other sociopathic disorders.

You wrote not one but two honors theses to complete your BA. What motivated you to take on the extra challenge and how did it impact your studies?
My first honors thesis, which I completed under the mentorship of Dr. Ephrem Fernandez, was the absolute catalyst in my decision to conduct psychological research and to pursue an academic career in the field of psychology. For the purposes of the thesis, I administered questionnaires that measured anger to groups of parolees who were court-mandated to attend anger management classes. The interaction with the ex-offenders, most of whom had committed violent offenses, is what sparked my interest in personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

This interest motivated me to investigate the potential relationship between personality disorders and the choice of college major in students who declare psychology or business as their major.

The experience of being exposed to research methods and getting a taste of the thrill that comes with analyzing data and making sense of the results led me to formulate the idea of a second honors thesis. I’m grateful to my mentor, Dr. Stella Lopez, who encouraged and supported me in pursuing this interest and guided me in the whole process. Completing two honors theses in two years is definitely not an easy feat. However, I’ve never regretted the long hours or the added stress of increased responsibility, as the experience I’ve gained is invaluable. Having now been accepted into the Master of Science in Experimental Psychology at UTSA, I feel more confident and more knowledgeable about the expectations of graduate school.

Back home in Greece, you spent a few years in the 'real world' after secondary school before you decided to study psychology in the US. What led you back to the academic world?
After graduating high school, I worked as an English teacher in my hometown. Even though I didn’t attend University, I feel as though I never really left the academic environment. Teaching is an amazingly rewarding experience. I taught all ages, from small children who learned the English alphabet to adults who needed advanced English lessons because of their work. Through teaching, I started missing the excitement of learning something new every day and eventually I decided it was time for me to become a student again. I didn’t have to think twice about choosing psychology as my major.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m planning on continuing my education at UTSA as a graduate student by completing the Master of Science in Experimental Psychology. Anger and personality disorders are research topics that I’d like to continue investigating at the graduate level. My long-term goals involve pursuing a doctorate degree in clinical psychology, which will allow me to treat patients that suffer from personality disorders, anger, and other severe psychological problems.

I haven’t decided whether I’d like to be in practice full-time or if I’ll find myself in an academically oriented career, continuing research and teaching — which is why clinical psychology is the best fit for my interests.