When Tammi Chaparro graduates from Cal Poly Pomona this month, she will stand out from her classmates.
Chaparro is a President’s Council Scholar, president of the sociology honor society Alpha Kappa Delta, a peer mentor, a Michi and Walter Weglyn intern and a research assistant who has made presentations before professional organizations. She is an exceptional student by any measure.
She also is 44 — old enough to be her classmates’ mother. In fact, the Ventura native and criminology student has a daughter older than most of her classmates. Chaparro is the quintessential non-traditional student.
“When I was a peer mentor, I told someone how old I was, and they didn’t believe me. So I had to pull out my driver’s license and say, ‘Seriously, look,’” Chaparro recalls. “I think people usually think I’m in my 30s. When I say have a daughter that’s like way older than them, they’re usually like, ‘No!’”
On June 15, Chaparro will become the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. It’s the culmination of a journey that began because she was determined to set a good example for her daughter about the importance of education.
Chaparro gave birth when she was a high school sophomore. Despite her pregnancy, she wound up earning her high school diploma a semester early through hard work and determination.
After graduating, Chaparro focused on being a single mom. To support herself, she went to a beauty college and worked for years as a manicurist at a salon in Ventura.
“It was more like I was an underpaid therapist to my customers,” she says, laughing. “I used to joke with them about that.”
But Chaparro yearned for something more. She loved education, and she wanted her daughter to pursue it as well. She knew, however, that she wasn’t necessarily a role model.
So Chaparro decided to enroll at Ventura College and got involved in student government. A few years later, she transferred to Cal Poly Pomona. Once on campus, she immediately became involved with several campus organizations.
“I think maybe because I’m older — and I have a little more life experience — I feel a little bit more confident in myself now at this stage, where I’m not as timid to talk to professors,” Chaparro says. “I seem to get along with the professors better.”
She became a Weglyn intern working with her faculty advisor, Sociology Professor Mary Danico, to help promote the interdisciplinary study of minority groups. She helped create events that fostered civic engagement and social justice on campus.
Helping incoming transfer students was especially close to her heart because of her own experience, so she volunteered last summer with a pilot program on campus intended to ease the transition.
“Sometimes when you’re new here, it’s like you have to figure out where you fit in. And that’s why some transfer students won’t do so well in the first quarter, because they’re trying to figure out the whole system,” Chaparro says. “But once they feel like they belong, or they know they have a friend, they excel in other things, like academics.”
Chaparro also assisted Danico in researching the “transfer shock” that military veterans, low-income and first-generation students often experience when first arriving on campus. She presented the findings to the Pacific Sociological Association and the Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research.
Separately, she worked as a research assistant for psychology and sociology lecturer Jessica Kizer on peer mentoring, attending the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in Higher Education in Indianapolis.
Along the way, Chaparro has earned many plaudits. Her peers elected her president of Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society that received the Student Organization Award for Civic Engagement this year for its community service projects.
Individually, Chaparro was named a President’s Council Scholar, the most prestigious scholarship at Cal Poly Pomona, and to the dean’s and president’s lists. The Department of Psychology and Sociology also presented her with its awards for professional development and community service work.
“The awards reflect her ability to balance research and give back to the community,” Danico says.
Chaparro will enter the master of social work program at UCLA this fall, and she hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D.
She wants to teach and research in the area of teen pregnancy and juveniles who have been in the criminal or dependency court systems. She acknowledges that her own teen pregnancy is a motivating factor.
“There’s always a kind of stigma, because I got pregnant when I was so young, that I was more than likely not ever going to become much of anything,” Chaparro says. “I always felt like there was a black shadow that I had to overcome in order to actually find confidence within myself to be able to become something.”
Danico thinks Chaparro will go far.
“She conscientiously strives for excellence and works tirelessly to take advantage of learning. Tammi will excel at anything she sets her heart and mind to,” Danico says.
Chaparro’s experience has paid off another way: Her daughter is taking classes at a community college toward becoming a professional photographer.
“Being a positive role model to her means a lot to me now,” Chaparro says. “And I’d like to be a positive role model to many of the young girls who maybe went through some of the same things I did.”