From the time she was a senior in high school, Karina Ortiz Villa knew she wanted to be a philosopher seeking and finding answers to complex questions.
While taking a class in high school where she read the works of great philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates, Ortiz Villa learned to search for answers to philosophical questions and found that philosophy can bring clarity to what is unclear.
“It helps you answer questions or make sense of our world,” said the Cal Poly Pomona senior.
Ortiz Villa expects to earn her degree in philosophy in May and is carrying out graduate-level research.
For Ortiz Villa, philosophy and her research offer her a way to help others — particularly those struggling with immigration issues — by studying questions and uncovering answers that can improve their lives, she said. Ortiz Villa also works full-time as a paralegal, assisting clients facing immigration and asylum issues, problems she understands since she was once undocumented.
She was a student at Cal Poly Pomona when personal challenges and the stress of being undocumented became overwhelming and she opted to put her studies on hold and seek work. Ten years later, in 2019, Ortiz Villa returned to Cal Poly Pomona to complete her education.
At one point, Ortiz Villa planned to pursue a law degree after earning a bachelor’s in philosophy, but she learned that as a lawyer, she would face limits aiding immigrants.
A philosophy degree and the ability to research subjects tied to immigration will make her more effective, Ortiz Villa said.
“I want to be able to ask these questions,” she said. “I want to find the answers.”
Although she is still an undergraduate student, she has begun researching hefty issues. Her first research project was her senior thesis focusing on whether men of color and low-income men can be oppressed based on their gender and economic status. Her research showed it can and does happen.
Unlike white, affluent males, men of color can be the subject of inequities based on their gender and race, her research revealed.
“Different policies can affect or target men of color,” she said.
Ortiz Villa is now participating in the McNair Scholars Program, which prepares students eligible for graduate and doctoral programs to succeed. She plans to attend UC San Diego in the fall to pursue a doctorate in philosophy.
As part of the McNair program, Ortiz Villa is conducting research alongside Katherine Gasdaglis, Cal Poly Pomona assistant professor of philosophy and her McNair faculty mentor. Ortiz Villa was also in Gasdaglis’ senior seminar.
The research the mentor and mentee are conducting involves studying how gender and race intersect and lead to injustice and oppression for men of color, Gasdaglis said. Their joint project, an outgrowth of Ortiz Villa’s examination of gender discrimination some men experience and Gasdaglis’ own research, focuses on the role intersectionality can play in theorizing masculinity, Gasdaglis said.
So far Ortiz Villa has found intersectionality can come into play in immigration policy and enforcement, Ortiz Villa said.
Student-faculty collaboration is unusual in philosophy because often undergraduate philosophy students require extensive preparation before they can begin to conduct research, Gasdaglis said.
In the case of Ortiz Villa, she is already carrying out graduate level research, has a strong grasp of the subject, and has the skills that allow her to learn on her own, Gasdaglis added.
Ortiz Villa is far from the typical student.
She brings maturity and life experience to her research, Gasdaglis said. She has a desire to learn and is committed.
“She treats her undergraduate research like a full-time job,” Gasdaglis said.
Ortiz Villa is thoughtful but also brings energy to her work and “believes research can transform the world,” she said.
Gasdaglis said she and others in the philosophy department agree that Ortiz Villa is going to excel in the next phase of her training and beyond.
“She has all the skills, energy and capacity to be a rock star in philosophy,” Gasdaglis said.