From DeCal creator to Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship — an interview with undergraduate student Fabiola Vazquez Espinoza

Photo of Fabiola posing in front of the campanile on Berkeley's campus
September 27, 2023

This next interview is very exciting for us, because it’s our first interview with an undergraduate student! I personally met Fabiola Vazquez Espinoza through a literary magazine we’re both editors for: Vagabond Multilingual Journal. But Fabiola is an extremely active part of the arts and humanities community here on campus and is a part of several other incredible organizations that we will be speaking more about. 

Fabiola, I would love to hear you introduce yourself! What are you majoring in, and do you have any goals, or things you hope to achieve, within this major? 

I was initially double-majoring in English and Spanish but when I transferred I became curious about comparative literature. When I started getting involved in Vagabond and meeting other comparative literature majors, as well as talking to Nina, the undergraduate major advisor, I realized that it was the perfect fit for what I wanted to do. Studying comparative literature allows me to do what I’ve always wanted: read works of literature from all over the world, and learn what makes some cultures unique and some others similar. I think that American society oftentimes is too focused on what makes us different because of its individualistic aspect, but my goal is to find what makes us similar: what pieces of history and culture bring us together.

Can you tell us some more about your research? 

It’s on bilingual education. I want to research the characteristics of effective bilingual programs. There’s very little research on that in the U.S. The U.S. has the most Spanish speakers besides Mexico—we have more Spanish speakers here than in Spain. The U.S. is full of people who speak a lot of languages, so it’s really interesting to me to see how there isn’t more effort put into bilingual education. Especially people who are raised here, and their parents speak to them in a different language, but they learn English in school, and they try to juggle two languages—they can benefit a lot from learning how to read and write in their home language. I’m really interested in all of that. 

Yeah that’s so interesting. And this is a bit off-topic, but on the subject of bilingualism and comparative literature, I know that students are sometimes worried about taking comparative literature classes when they don’t speak another language. But a lot of people don’t realize that our general comparative literature classes are usually all in English translation. We majors have to know multiple languages because we have to take literature classes in another language through that language’s department. But if you’re reading this and you’re interested in comparative literature as a discipline, and don’t know another language, that’s totally fine.

Yeah. And especially for first-years—you have way more time. For transfers, I’m not sure how that works. For me it was easy to transition because I already had background in Spanish because I have lived in Mexico for most of my life, so it was easy to take the classes I had already taken in the Spanish department into my comparative literature major. 

I was also wondering what kinds of things you enjoy outside of school. For me, during my first year at Berkeley, I really struggled with guilt when I explored hobbies outside of my schoolwork. Whenever I do make time for my other hobbies, though, it helps me so much with stress-relief and can honestly sometimes inspire academic projects I have. What kind of hobbies do you enjoy outside of academia?

Totally! I must say the academic environment at Cal does make you feel guilty sometimes for doing things outside of studying. For me, it makes me feel like I have to do 30 things—work, research, volunteering—at the same time to be competitive. But hobbies that help me de-stress… I enjoy going to the gym with my friends who live at Bowles. It’s the perfect activity to take a mental break, and it has helped for my physical health so much. When I’m tired of reading, and my brain feels fried, I just take a break and go outside. Even if it’s just a walk, or going hiking, or going to the gym, it helps so much. After a good workout, I come back so energized and motivated to keep doing other things.

Yeah, I think taking care of your physical wellness is so important. I’ve found, even, that when I’m destressing through exercise I can actually think more clearly. And so yeah, I wouldn’t feel guilty at all about taking time to do other things. I think it’s so important. 

And it’s hard when people are normalizing studying at 3am because you start feeling like, “Oh, maybe I should be doing that,” but in the end, it’s more important, like you say, to take care of yourself. I also like to join other social activities that my residential community plans—playing board games, ping pong, hiking, going to the botanical garden, going for ice cream–simple things like that. I love exploring new places at Cal and trying new things. That’s what helps me destress, and just appreciate being here.

So one of the super cool things that I saw you’re a part of is the Cultural Peers Mentorship program. What is this program, and who would you recommend this program to?

So I have an update on this. I was  part of this program but not anymore because I had to drop it since I have so many commitments. But I can explain a little bit what it is. It’s an undergraduate mentorship program that helps international students navigate cultural shock and navigate Berkeley. They pair you with another peer mentor and a group of around 60 international students, and you have to organize two or three activities per semester for them. You’re basically just a resource for them, so if they come to you with questions about where to find healthcare, or where to find food—just basic things like that—you’re just mentoring them, and helping them connect with resources they might need. I did a campus tour, but I realized that it would require a lot of time, because they have biweekly meetings, too. But you get to know people from all over the world, which is so cool. 

Yeah, and I also think this is a good way to say: if you’re a first-year, or even a senior, and you have too many time commitments, it’s totally normal to need to drop things. I know that it can feel really difficult, especially when you’re passionate about whatever it is that you’re doing, but you need to prioritize your health and make sure you’re not taking on too many things. 

Yeah, I remember my first semester, I would feel guilty saying no to things. I’m barely learning even now that it’s OK to say no. As Berkeley students we feel like we can take over the world—that we can just take everything and do everything. And you can, but not everything at the same time. 

I was wondering what your experience has been like as a transfer student? Are there any specific programs or communities that have helped support you in your transition to Berkeley? Do you have any pieces of advice for other transfer students?

I know there’s the Bridges program before committing to Berkeley for a three-day weekend where they have activities and show you around. That’s a program I’ve heard people have benefited from. For me, there was the Transfer Center. They have printing resources; they have mentorship; they have advisors that understand the transfer student experience. There’s another resource called Student Support Services, and this is for first-generation, low-income transfer students only, so it’s a smaller cohort of students. They have a house where you can go and study, and they have free advisors who can check if you’re on track. When I had doubts about triple-majoring I just went to them and they were super sweet. One of them is Lorena Valdez, who is the director of Transfer Student Programs. I’ve used the career center too. They say that transfer students don’t use the career center a lot, so when I heard that, I decided I needed to use it. They really helped me in building a resume, and finding ways to transfer my skills. My advice for other transfer students is to use all the resources, and take advantage of all the opportunities, and a lot of us feel imposter syndrome. That’s normal. It feels like everyone’s so smart, and that you’re not as smart as them, but if you’re here it means you belong here, and you can bring something to the community. 

Yeah, I know I really dealt with imposter syndrome too because  I come from a pretty underfunded public school in Wisconsin, and when I lived there, not very many people supported the idea of taking academia as seriously. When I got to Cal I felt really underprepared because I wasn’t used to the environment. I think that dealing with imposter syndrome is really normal, and I know people hear that a lot so it feels like a cliche, but it’s really important to recognize how prevalent it is. 

People just talk about all the good things that they’re doing, and don’t really talk about the bad feelings. I wish we would talk more about, I don’t know, our struggles. 

And I think it’s also really normal every semester to have a moment where you realize that you have too many commitments, and it’s really normal to have to re— Yeah to restructure your goals. And it’s totally OK if you change your major, too. For me, I’ve done literature my whole life, so it feels daunting to think about switching to something else. With my parents I was talking about switching to comparative literature, and they were like, ‘What is that? English is what you need to study.’ But once I explained what it was about, they were a lot more understanding. 

I also know that you’re also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about that? 

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship guides the intellectual and professional development of fellows to realize their greatest potential as graduate students. The MMUF program prepares fellows to become successful faculty members and role models for future generations. 

The program basically provides you with resources about graduate school, mentorship, and an opportunity to conduct research and attend conferences. It also provides you with a network of fellows from all across the country. This past summer I went to the University of Chicago as part of the program, and we worked on a research project and presented it in a symposium in front of all the fellows and some UChicago faculty. We had activities where we got to know the history of Chicago and learn about the great migration, and also got to talk to other graduate students and faculty about grad school. We receive a stipend and we get funding to attend conferences. This semester our regional conference will take place in November in Long Beach, CA.

And one of the other things I was really excited to talk about with you is Vagabond. What has your experience been with Vagabond? Have you found that it has changed your views on translation? I know that for me, joining Vagabond really opened my eyes to the level of creativity that undergraduate scholars are able to bring to translation studies. I would love to hear your thoughts on it as well! 

I love Vagabond! It certainly influenced me a lot to make that official switch of major. I love comparative literature majors so much because you guys understand what it feels like to live between cultures and worlds, whereas that sentiment is less common in the English department.

It certainly showed me the effort and work that goes into translation. In poetry for example not only do you have to capture the meaning and the themes of the poem, but also the sounds and the poetic structure. That’s really hard. It’s not just translating words; it’s an art. It’s a hard task, for sure. I love the magazine because it’s one of the only spaces on campus where we get to hear voices from all cultures and all backgrounds and get glimpses into the hearts and minds of undergraduates. 

And the editing process for Vagabond I think is so interesting, because it’s creative writing—and a lot of the editing process is just picking which pieces we can publish—and I know it’s obvious that creative writing is very subjective, but it was super interesting to hear different people’s views on whether or not a piece could get published. I guess I was wondering, what do you look for in a piece to be published? I know that there are pieces that sound really great, but that I personally don’t think can be published. I remember we actually worked on a poem together that we ultimately decided couldn’t be published, even though we thought it was so creative. So anyways, I was just wondering if you could speak more about the process of analyzing whether or not something can be published. 

That’s a hard question. For this it was very specific, because we had guidelines that we needed to follow. Of course, that’s how publishing houses work—they look for specific things. I guess I was looking for the ability to evoke feeling, but also for it to teach me a lesson. I didn’t like the pieces that were just empty, where I didn’t know what the point was. 

I remember Pearlin [former editor-in-chief of Vagabond, class of 2023] referring to certain poems as ‘potato-chip poems,’ where it feels really good to fill yourself up on these poems that feel kind of like they’re deep, or getting at some sort of meaning, but that don’t really have anything backing them. You can kind of just pop a bunch in your mouth. I thought that was a really cool metaphor. 

Yeah, or the ones that are just provoking you, but not teaching you something. Generally, poems that I thought could be published were ones that could make me think of something in a different way, or just teach me something about life.

What was it like for you to create your own DeCal? Where did the inspiration come from, and what were some of the challenges along the way? 

Yeah, so remember Angeli?

Yeah, she’s the editor-in-chief of Vagabond now! 

Oh, yeah, yeah, she’s the editor-in-chief! So she actually came up with the idea for the DeCal. I know she loves creative writing, so she wanted to create a space in the Spanish department for creative voices. We got inspired by Vagabond, honestly. I wish I had more time—are you still in Vagabond?


Yay! Well, you’re going to have to tell me how that goes. Anyways, so she had taken more creative writing classes than me, so she got a lot of advising from our Spanish advisor about how to come up with the DeCal. There’s a lot of paperwork to be done; you need to submit the syllabus, and you need to explain really clearly how participation will be graded, and how the requirements will be put into practice. It needs to go through the academic senate, so we got feedback from them and that was one of the challenges. We had to do multiple revisions. It takes time; we did this over the summer. For me, I love the teaching aspect, so we decided to collaborate. She asked me if I wanted to help her with the project, and I decided that…yeah, it was a super cool idea. We already had our first meeting, and we have around 11 students right now. They were all participating, so we’re really excited to see how it develops. 

And we were talking about this a little bit earlier, on the way here, about your thoughts on teaching. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that?

Yeah of course. Well, my dad likes to talk a lot [laughs] I guess that’s where I…he likes to read a lot, too, and I feel like that’s where I got the teaching feeling—from him. I never really was sure what I wanted to do, until in community college I started tutoring. Just having one-on-one conversations with people, and mentoring them, and encouraging people was really gratifying. I think that’s one of the experiences that made me really excited about teaching, and just the independence you have to create your lesson plans and share ideas, and learn from others.

And then our last question: What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview?

During the summer I was reading only books relevant to my research. I will recommend one of those, because I haven’t read fiction in a long time. I read “The Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism” by Kenji Hakuta and it was fascinating. He covers the debate on bilingualism and bilingual education and the social ideas that keep America from implementing a good bilingual education system. In that book, you can also learn more about how we acquire language—how children acquire language vs. how adults acquire language;  the historical research behind the intelligence of bilingual people; and how the mind works with two languages. Very interesting stuff. I would especially recommend it if you’re interested in cognitive science, languages, and social issues.