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Chico State

Graduate Student Breaking Through Doors Once Closed to Her

A portrait of graduate student Letty Mejia in a purple dress.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the accomplishments and stories behind 2024’s Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipients. The award—one of the largest and most prestigious at Chico State—celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic, and professional accomplishments.

Letty Mejia arrived in the United States at the age of four­. As an undocumented child, she grew up constantly being told no. Drivers’ license: no. College: no. Become a nurse: no. The 2012 advent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) finally provided a yes. She could work and drive without fear, and even attend college.

That yes has turned into many yeses. In 2015 Mejia was granted legal entry due to her partner’s military service, and in 2021, she became a U.S. Citizen. Meanwhile, Mejia has been making sure that children who are experiencing some of the things she did in her community of Redding encounter more open doors than stop signs.

“It’s kind of a harsh illustration, but it was a harsh reality. I was like that dog in the backyard leashed up, wanting to run,” Mejia said. “Now I feel like I can finally run free and do all the things and be all the things that were never possible for me.”

Mejia graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2021 with a degree in early childhood development and will complete her master’s degree in social work from Chico State in May. She is now well on her way to becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

In the meantime, driven by a desire to serve as an example to her two children (11-year-old Julian and 8-year-old Andy) and open doors of opportunity for the kids in her community, she works as a (deep breath): Bridges to Success and Community Connect intern at the Shasta County Office of Education; Adelante Ambassador and Adelante Club secretary at Chico State; California Competes student researcher at Shasta Community College; Community EduTrainer for First 5 Shasta County, and substitute teacher for the Shasta County Office of Education. She also volunteers as a member of the Shasta County Local Child Care and Development Planning Council and with the California Cascade Association for the Education of Young Children.

“Two of my greatest passions are my community and my kids,” she said. “I love being able to be that face of representation for the population that I’m serving here—children and individuals who see themselves in me. And I want my kids to have the opportunities and experience stability that I never experienced.” Mejia’s commitment is resolute. Seeing a glaring need for Spanish speaking services in the evidence- based Positive Parenting Program that the Shasta County Office of Education relies heavily upon, she sought out a grant through First Five of Shasta County, which covered a little less than half of the nearly $4,000 fee. Mejia paid the rest. She will now gladly use the money she receives with her Rawlins award to help offset that cost. But that is not all the award means to her.

What does the scholarship mean to you and what will it allow you to accomplish? 

What it really means is that my mentor, (Professor) Judy Vang, who nominated me, sees things about me that I have not always seen in myself. It’s a humbling feeling to know that she sees me as someone that has what it takes to move our profession forward—to be able to help others in a way that deserves acknowledgment.

Which programs or people have made a difference in your educational journey?

So many people have really helped me along the way. Adelante (Graduate Studies Student Success Coordinator) Rosemary White, Sharon Barrios and Susan Roll in Graduate Studies, and Professor Vang. Also, I’ve learned so many clinical things from Maia Illa, a lecturer in the School of Social Work. Her expertise and knowledge have been super helpful in my journey as a therapist. And, of course, Molly, our advisor in the School of Social Work, has been helpful too. 

What opportunities to gain hands-on work experience have you received at Chico State? 

The hybrid model I’m in provides the best of both worlds. The hands-on experience happens the moment I’m in the classroom. I love the flexibility of being able to work from home, but being around my peers and hearing the expertise of those with a background in social work already, and getting the expertise and the knowledge from my professors, is super essential. Being here in person offers a level of connection that you don’t necessarily get online. I also get to be hands-on with the Adelante program, doing trainings with students and supporting them in practical ways and seeing what they go through. And then there’s my practicum, where I am working with children and families, getting accreditations, and learning every day I’m there.

What’s a subject you could put together a compelling PowerPoint presentation about?

My expertise is in working with immigrant families and immigration. I’m a helper and a healer for children and their families. As a social worker I see how systems impact these immigrants, families, and children. You can’t always just grab the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and put a person in a box. And that’s especially true when you’re talking about an immigrant. Maybe what they have is not depression. Maybe it’s the trauma and loss from leaving their family behind and having to re-feel that every time they talk to their family, or the knowledge that their parents are sick and they haven’t seen them for 25 years. So, it’s being able to be that voice of wisdom and bring a different perspective into the conversation that is super helpful. Also, I think there’s a natural part of me that just understands children because of my undergraduate studies in early childhood education as well as my own life experiences. Being an immigrant as a child is different than being an immigrant coming in as an adult.