An encouraging teacher and a speech competition taught Diana Aguilar-Cruz an important lesson — that she has a voice, and that voice has power.
When she was a junior at Sierra Vista High School, her English language development teacher urged the Baldwin Park resident to enter a California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) speech contest, which was focused on how being bilingual and multilingual can make dreams come true. The Mexico City native entered the contest, and, on her second try, she won in the high school category, earning her the opportunity to read her speech in front of an audience of educators in Sacramento.
“I remember, when I was reading the speech, I thought, ‘People don’t really pay attention to students.’ They are usually talking or eating,” she said. “But the moment I spoke, people stopped everything they were doing. The cooks in the back all spoke Spanish, and a lady told me and my family after the speech that all the cooks were crying in the back.”
The idea that she could move people with her words sparked an interest in politics and advocacy that has stayed with her ever since. It has served her as an ASI senator at Cal Poly Pomona and will inform her work as a newly appointed CSU Trustee.
Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Aguilar-Cruz to the Board of Trustees on June 1. Her two-year term on the 25-member board, which adopts regulations and policies governing the CSU system, begins July 1. She will represent 477,000 of her peers as a student trustee.
Making the Cut
It was the opportunity to use her voice on behalf of all CSU students that prompted Aguilar-Cruz, a biology senior, to apply for the trustee post. She almost didn’t make the deadline. She learned about the opportunity just two weeks before the applications were due. Though pressed for time, she crafted a personal statement reflective of her experiences and those of many CSU students and their families. Aguilar-Cruz made it through the first round of interviews with a panel of student presidents from the various CSUs.
After that, she advanced to the second round – an interview with two representatives from the governor’s office.
“The interview with the governor’s office was more personal,” she said, “and it seemed like they wanted to learn more about my story and what truly defines Diana Aguilar-Cruz.”
Only two candidates made it to that stage, so Aguilar-Cruz knew she at least had a 50-50 chance. Even with those odds, she was still floored when she found out she got the post.
“I had forgotten my phone in my room that day, so I came home to all of these calls and texts,” she said. “I checked my email, and I still didn’t believe it. I said, ‘I am not going to believe it until I see the press release.’ The next day, I kept refreshing and refreshing the page. As soon as I saw it, my world exploded. I told my mom, dad and grandma, ‘I got it! I got it!’”
President Soraya M. Coley was among the first to call and congratulate Aguilar-Cruz.
“I got so excited,” she said. “Before coming to the U.S., I never imaged that people like President Coley would call me. I didn’t even speak English.”
A New Home
Aguilar-Cruz immigrated to the United States in 2015. The aspiring pediatric neurosurgeon was 14, and she came without her parents to live with her grandmother.
“I didn’t see my parents for a few years,” she said.
Aguilar-Cruz said moving to the California was a culture shock and a learning process, but she eventually found her footing with the help of her teachers.
“My English language development teacher served as my guide,” she said. “Not only in academics, but she showed me that you shouldn’t be embarrassed of being who you are, being an immigrant or Mexican. Embrace what others perceive as your weaknesses, and they will become your strengths.”
Her parents were college educated in Mexico. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother a preschool teacher. However, Aguilar-Cruz is still considered a first-generation college student in the United States.
In 2018, when Aguilar-Cruz won that CABE speech contest, her parents flew to Sacramento to attend the event.
“It was the first time that I saw my parents again,” she said. “Mom and Dad were crying. Mom said when she saw me do the speech, that is when she got the strength to come here and start a new life.”
The parents now live in Baldwin Park, along with Aguilar-Cruz’s younger brother, who is headed to high school in the fall.
With her parents working hard just to make ends meet, college was an expense they could not afford to help with as much as they wanted to financially, but she has been able to put herself through school thanks to scholarships that have helped her pay for her books, extracurricular activities and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep materials. She plans to attend medical school in fall 2024.
Aguilar-Cruz stays active on campus socially and politically. She has served as the officer of academic affairs for Associated Students Inc., and as an active member of the Mexican American Student Association, Hermanas Unidas, Inc., the CPP Pre-Medical Student Association and Delta Epsilon Mu, a pre-health professional co-ed fraternity. She was also a participant in the Cal Poly Pomona Achieve Scholars Program, which provides students with mentoring, faculty advising and opportunities for research. Off campus, she has completed several internships with Emanate Health, which runs three hospitals and a hospice.
Aguilar-Cruz interned in nine different departments but said her favorite was labor and delivery because she had the opportunity to provide emotional support to moms and witness babies being born.
Students Helping Students
Lauren Simon, Ph.D., the student government assistant in ASI, met Aguilar-Cruz when she applied to serve as the academic senator for 2021-22.
“She was very wonderful to work with,” said Simon, who supports student leaders with policies and procedures, budget development and day-to-day activities. “Every time she would come in, it was ‘Hey Dr. Simon’ with a super bright smile. She was always willing to help and willing to serve. She held up our motto of student serving students.”
Simon said Aguilar-Cruz has strengths that will help her in her new role as CSU Trustee.
“She is very high spirited and also very open,” said Simon. “She is really committed to serving the students, and she is very inclusive. That will make her a well-suited person for the trustee position.”
Alex John, an associate professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department, also sees Aguilar-Cruz as an excellent choice to represent students systemwide.
“Diana was a very engaged, interactive, supportive and collaborative student,” John said. “What impressed me most about her is that she was not afraid to ask questions, and she it did not bother her what others might think. I often saw her helping her peers, but she also did not hesitate to ask for help from them when needed.”
Aguilar-Cruz was a student in two semesters of organic chemistry, plus a lab course, with John. He attended her poster presentation on Alzheimer’s disease at the College of Science research symposium in April and talked with her about the off-campus activities she participates in as well.
“She likes to bring her ideas to the table, she is going to ask a lot of questions, and she cares about her fellow students,” John said. “I am sure that Diana will do her best to bring positive change to the CSU system that is supportive and student-centered.”
For Aguilar-Cruz, it is all about using her talents, grit and story to embody hope and help carve out a path for others, whether in her advocacy work or when she becomes a surgeon. Making her family proud also is plus.
“I want to be a pediatric neurosurgeon for three reasons: to give back to my mom for all the sacrifices and love, to pave the way for the little ones in family especially my brother who wants to become an engineer, and to lead by example so that future generations of underrepresented individuals can get motivated as they hear my story,” she said.
“Everything and anything is possible as long as you have passion and drive. I hope that others can be inspired by my actions and understand that although we might have different struggles, the pursuit for success is something we have in common.”