Alejandra Pulido has taken the long road to commencement, but the journey has been worth it.
A Rowland Heights resident, Pulido, 27, will graduate Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She plans to teach English in China for several months and then apply for a doctoral program in Spanish.
But none of these plans — let alone earning her degree — was a foregone conclusion just a few years ago. Pulido had graduated from John A. Rowland High School in 2003 and enrolled at UC Davis that fall. But she had difficulties at Davis: she slept until late into the afternoon, didn’t go to class and got poor grades.
“Every day I thought about ending my life, and I knew there was something wrong with that, because normal people don’t think about that,” Pulido says. “I didn’t come close to doing it … but you’re in dark deep hole and you don’t know how to get out of it.”
It wasn’t the first time she had problems with grades. Pulido had been a star student with a 4.0 GPA until her senior year in high school.
“All of a sudden, there was no drive to continue forward,” she recalls. “I performed pretty poorly my senior year.”
Pulido couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. Her family and high school teachers weren’t sure what was going on, and Pulido says they probably assumed she was just going through a phase during her senior year.
Ultimately, she was dismissed from UC Davis after developing academic problems and spending three quarters on probation. Pulido didn’t immediately tell her parents that she had been kicked out, having never dealt with such a failure. Instead, she worked and tried to get back into school.
When Pulido’s father found out about a year later, he asked her to go see a psychologist.
“And so the psychologist had said, ‘Do you feel like you’re a train and then your gas just ran out?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yes! I feel stuck, like I just can’t move.’ So then after some exams, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.”
Pulido moved back home to be with family in 2006. Initially, she shut herself off from former acquaintances. Some had finished college and were moving on to become doctors, lawyers, professors. Pulido found it too difficult to explain what had happened to her, especially when she had been a good student with high aspirations.
“There is a stigma attached. It is shameful to say you have depression, especially when people think it hits due to an event in your life,” she says. “There wasn’t a death, there wasn’t a health issue. So how do you explain it? ‘Oh, I have a chemical imbalance.’”
It took four years for Pulido to come to terms with her depression, start over, rebuild her confidence and get back on track academically. She credits her family, friends and boyfriend for supporting her through the process. She enrolled at Mt. SAC in 2010 and took classes there before transferring to Cal Poly Pomona the following year.
Gradually, she became comfortable sharing with others about what happened to her, offering them the benefit of her hard-won experience.
“I like to tell them there’s always a second chance,” she says. “I learned a lot as a result. I feel like I went through an early midlife crisis. I feel more calm and confident now.”
And perhaps most importantly, Pulido learned not to take anything for granted. When she arrived at Cal Poly Pomona, she took advantage of career counseling and professors’ office hours. She worked at the Learning Resource Center as a Spanish tutor for the past two years and joined the Ahimsa Club. She traveled to China last summer to teach English. And she is working on a Spanish linguistics research project with Assistant Professor Amàlia Llombart.
“Every time I ask her to do something related to research or helping other students, she is happy to do it, even when this is not going to materialize in a grade or, even less, money. She just does it because it’s good,” Llombart says. “And I can see that she lost her first opportunity (at UC Davis), and now that she has a second one, she wants to take advantage of it as much as she can, without missing anything.”
Linguistics is the area that Pulido wants to study, specifically about “heritage speakers” or people who learned Spanish at home. There are many studies about how people learn Spanish as a second language, but not many about heritage speakers, she says. Many heritage speakers don’t know how to read or write Spanish, so how they learn is worth further research, Pulido says.
Because of her experience, Pulido hopes to teach at a community college or at the California State University level, rather than at a University of California campus, where faculty are more involved in research and have less time for students.
“Here, teachers care about their students. They want you to succeed, and they’re there for you,” she says. “I would like to be at a place that cares about students.”
(Photo: Alejandra Pulido.)