Champion of diversity ‘gives back’ in many ways
Had Carlos Grijalva followed his father’s career advice, he would most likely never have won the 2012 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award from UCLA’s Academic Senate. He would have become a dentist.
"My father said, ‘If you go to college, it ought to be something worth your time,’ " recalled Grijalva, who grew up in Nogales, Ariz. "So he suggested dental school, and he gave me all the reasons why. It was better than being a physician, he said, because in those days, physicians made house calls. Dentists have a ‘regular’ job; it’s a good-paying profession, and respected."
Carlos Grijalva, professor of psychology and associate dean of the Graduate Division, was named a winner of the 2012 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award. The student winner of this award is Sofia Campos, co-chair of a campus support and advocacy group for undocumented students.
Instead, Grijalva followed another path and earned a ton of respect from his peers a different way. The professor of behavioral neuroscience and associate dean of the Graduate Division was recently honored by the Senate for his extraordinary efforts to increase the enrollment of underrepresented minority students and to ensure these students’ success at UCLA and beyond.
But as a college student, Grijalva did enroll in a pre-dental program at the University of Arizona. A low grade in an embryology course caused the normally conscientious student to freak out a little, and he stepped back and did some soul-searching as to what he really wanted to do.
"I took a psych course, and it seemed very intuitive. I enjoyed it; it made sense," Grijalva said. "And then I took a physiological psychology course, and that just turned me on — how the brain works, how it controls all kinds of things, including metabolism and behavior. I found something I really wanted to study."
Grijalva received a Ph.D. in physiological psychology from Arizona State University, then came to Los Angeles in 1977 and completed a dual postdoctoral appointment at UCLA. In 1982, he joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology.
Although he never planned it, Grijalva seemed destined for a career in which diversity and inclusion would be prominent. He joined Academic Senate and campus committees whose missions included advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, such as the College Faculty Executive Committee, the Undergraduate Council, the Graduate Council and the Committee on Academic Freedom.
Grijalva serves as a mentor and resource for underrepresented minority students, particularly those pursuing degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He also is currently a member of the UCLA Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which advocates for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.
In an effort to recruit a more diverse graduate-student population, he travels the country to foster relationships with historically black schools such as Morehouse College, Spelman College and Tuskegee University.
Grijalva and his staff are also trying to raise the number of underrepresented minorities in the science fields at UCLA by working with campus departments and encouraging them to consider less "traditional" candidates under an NSF-sponsored program called the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate.
"UCLA being such a prestigious school, everybody wants the very best students," Grijalva said. "And sometimes, I think we overlook a lot of very smart people because they’re not coming from the pedigree schools, maybe not the Yales or the Stanfords."
Instead, the associate dean tries to get faculty to take a more holistic approach. For example, a letter of recommendation from a faculty member who knows a student well, even if they are both from a small school, can be more meaningful than a letter from a world-renowned faculty member "who maybe doesn’t know the student all that well."
In their letter nominating Grijalva for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award, Robin Garrell and Ross Shideler — vice provost for graduate education/dean of the Graduate Division and associate dean of the Graduate Division, respectively — wrote, "Carlos has such a long record of service in the cause of diversity and equity at UCLA, it is truly surprising that he has not already received this award."
Many staff and faculty, including Garrell and Shideler, remember well the central role Grijalva played in the birth and early evolution of what became the highly successful César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies and the leadership he showed during a tumultuous time in UCLA’s history.
"During the difficult 1993 hunger strike period related to Chicano studies, Carlos was asked by the executive vice chancellor to serve on the implementation committee," Garrell and Shideler pointed out. "This service resulted in his assuming the position of interim chair of the César E. Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction. His commitment and involvement in this project was truly exceptional, as anyone who was around during that period knows.
"What is particularly notable is that while he was navigating the politicized and often contentious academic storms of that time, Carlos was still performing his duties as an associate dean of honors, as well as an associate professor in psychology," they wrote.
The soft-spoken neuroscientist — who at the time was raising two small boys with his wife, Lynne — seemed like the last person to get involved in such a contentious debate, and he entered it reluctantly. He already had a full plate with his duties in the Psychology Department and, as an administrator who taught neuroscience, not Chicano studies, he knew his involvement would be criticized by proponents who wanted UCLA to move faster to create a Chicano studies department.
"It could have been a dreadful moment, but my attitude has always been, rather than stressing about something, to use it as a challenge. And every day was a challenge," said Grijalva, laughing. "I got a lot of flak from students who made claims that I didn’t even know how to speak Spanish (he does). So I started having town hall meetings and tried to get people to come out and express their views. After all, that was their right, and that was the only way I was going to be able to wrap my head around their issues and see what I could do to help them out."
Fourteen days after it began, the hunger strike ended when then-Chancellor Charles E. Young and the protestors reached an agreement and signed a proposal for the creation of the new César E. Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies. In 2005, then-Chancellor Albert Carnesale approved the departmentalization of the program.
Receiving the diversity award has special meaning for Grijalva, who prefers not to dwell on past personal experiences of prejudice or bias. Rather, "I feel very lucky when I look back. I was very fortunate. I guess my own level of success has been to be open-minded enough to take advantage of opportunities. And I tell my students that," he said.
What’s important is the notion of giving back when the time is right, Grijalva added. "When I think about undergraduates, I feel that obligation to them. If nothing else, if they don’t have the guidance coming from home, they should have the guidance coming from some place," he said. "Because you plant a seed, and if you’re in the right place, you could actually help a garden to grow in ways you never expected to."