She is the eldest sister among four daughters; she studies art history at UCLA; she will be the first college graduate in her family this spring. With the support of her family, the guidance of her teachers and the knowledge that she has acquired, Wendy Figueroa embarked on an intensive research program designed for perspective graduate students and has just survived its six-week summer institute. This program is called the UCLA McNair Research Scholars Program and is a product of the legacy of Ronald E. McNair who committed himself to higher education despite his underrepresented background.

During the period of applying for this program, Wendy began to see that McNair’s vision of success in higher education parallels her drive to succeed in her major. She believes in his desire to utilize knowledge to empower those in the future, strengthening her confidence in herself and her knowledge and skills in research.  

UCLA McNair Research Scholars Program is a two-year commitment (over junior and senior year). Wendy officially became one of the 14 in her group of cohorts in January and will finish in Spring 2012. The program is designed to give high-achieving and highly motivated undergraduates a view into the world and studies of a graduate student. The program promotes the opportunity to do research on a social science or humanity subject of the undergraduate’s choice. Most significantly, the program enables those who come from underprivileged backgrounds to attain all the resources to pursue and succeed in graduate school.

Wendy believes that the McNair program is suitable for her for two reasons. Firstly, she has been considering whether graduate school is the right path for her future. As an individual who has witnessed her family’s hardships to create opportunities for her to accomplish her goals, the value of education and responsibility have been instilled in her since her childhood. At family gatherings, she is proud to know that her family is content because she drives to educate herself. As a role model for her three younger sisters, Wendy understands that giving up is not an option. Even once her career at UCLA ends, she knows she will continue her education in a graduate program either soon or somewhere along the future, and so, the McNair program educates her on how to apply to graduate school and study once she is admitted.

Through the McNair program, Wendy studies and researches about a topic that is very important to her. She has always been interested and inquisitive about her Mexican background, but few resources to learn about Mexican culture were in her reach when she was younger. However, in her first year at UCLA, she was exposed to Pre-Columbian art and became involved in research of Pre-Columbian, specifically Aztec, art through a program called AAP Junior Research Scholars Program. After finishing her research in the program, she indulged in more Aztec art during her second year. By her third year, she had redefined her research interest: an Aztec sun god named Tonatiuh.

A Pre-Columbian image on a mural in East Los Angeles (where she is from) caught her initial interest. In this mural, the sun god Tonatiuh primarily shines. In Aztec culture, the sun is such an important celestial body that the people conceptualize it as a diety. Chiefly, Tonatiuh appears as the central face of the stone that functioned as a calendar for the Aztecs.

Gradually, Wendy studied many works that portray Tonatiuh’s image and molded her research, titled Tonatiuh the Sun: His Role in Aztec Art and Ritual. Through researching Aztec art, Wendy reclaims her heritage. She notices how much she learns about her background through studying art history. She desires to continue the history of her heritage and further preserve her culture and traditions. Moreover, Wendy is open to any Aztec subject such as the role of female deities in Aztec culture and art.

This summer, as part of the McNair program, Wendy participated in the Summer Research Institute at UCLA’s Campbell Hall. She attended a graduate preparation class where two mentors advised the students on what graduate school will be like. She learned how write a statement of purpose, acquire funding for classes and request letters of recommendations. Another class she took was a writing class in which her peers reviewed her research writing. The summer institute even offered a GRE preparation class that she considers greatly advantageous towards applying to graduate school. Aside from classes, Wendy spent around 15 hours each week independently researching her subject and has completed a 20-page research proposal.

Wendy’s experience in this unique program has been valuable for her development in academics as well as personally. Though there were moments where she suffered because of its intensity, she knew these struggles would empower her if she could push through. She finds herself progressing so much as she spends time with her fellow scholars, learning the ways in which they use logic and critique. Also, she gained more perspectives while visiting the USC and UCSB campuses.

At the end of the summer institute, Wendy sees a change in herself. Right at this moment, she is a student who is at the point of experiencing her final year at UCLA and yet, the mystery of her future remains unsolved. But she is not anxious; in fact, she is excited. This feeling of excitement rushes through her mind as she ponders what route to take next, and the McNair program continually helps her dig deeper for a solid future goal.

In all her experiences, she feels as if she can accomplish any goal she sets her mind to and furthermore achieve any change she desires. Even though she does not know exactly where she will be in a year or two, she believes in herself and her skills to be able to apply her knowledge. Surely there is a career that fulfills both her requirements of creativity and art research. Wendy claims that after a couple of years of studying her major, now she realizes that she is really approaching some expertise in her field.

Finally, as a self-proclaimed art historian, Wendy strives to disprove the misconception of the Art History major as an impractical and bogus major. Art history is as valuable and enriching a major (assuming that one has a thirst for knowledge) as any other. It is a complex discipline. There are a lot of ways of thinking within the field (e.g. Buddhism and even modern art). Studying art history resembles traveling in a sense because one gets to learn how a culture thinks and behaves.