A single mother with her sights set on earning a bachelor’s degree, Veronica Ramirez Nievez weighed her options. Working multiple jobs while also caring for her mother, the 35-year-old Los Angeles resident required flexibility so that she could pursue her studies after work.

After researching programs that best fit her schedule, Nievez chose distance learning through Chico State’s Regional & Continuing Education—and in May, the first-generation student earned her coveted sociology degree.

“This bachelor’s degree has given me hope and has helped prove to myself, and to my son, that even though there are tough times and obstacles along the way, with hard work and determination you can reach your goals,” she said.

Nievez also made some history, as the inaugural recipient of the Michael Messner Social Justice Scholarship. Founded by educator and author Michael Messner (Sociology, ’74; MA, Sociology, ’76), the scholarship is awarded annually to a junior sociology major whose work promises to make vital contributions to understanding and alleviating social inequalities.

“I really want the scholarship to go to someone who has shown a lot of promise in either studying or doing some kind of community activism around addressing social inequality and issues,” said Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. “I want it to have an impact on addressing a lot of the issues sociologists care about.”

For Nievez, the scholarship was not only an affirmation of the importance of the work she dreamed of doing, but it helped her pay for books and materials to support her on her journey.

Caring for her mother and raising her 14-year-old son by herself, Nievez met and overcame a multitude of obstacles while working toward her bachelor’s degree. Married in her late teens and a mother by age 21, she also worked up to three jobs at a time to ensure her family met their basic needs. After leaving her abusive and toxic 12-year-marriage, she moved into a shared living space with family members while searching for her own place to live—and bumped up against discrimination in the process.

“I needed to find housing big enough for my family in the Los Angeles area, and as I searched, I was denied housing just because of my marital status,” she recalled. “With the help of a friend, I was able to find a small but stable apartment until I am able to find something more suitable.”

The experience only strengthened Nievez’s resolve. By the time she began distance learning classes at Chico State, she knew exactly what she wanted to do and how to help her community.

Veronica Ramirez Nievez poses in front of bright green bushes
Nievez eventually would like to work for Los Angeles County, where she could help her community and connect them with the available resources to thrive.

“[My] past experiences and other people’s experiences around me have shown me that in underserved communities there’s a lack of communication or lack of certain resources,” she said.

Currently a Resource Specialist Program (RSP) teacher assistant at an elementary school, Nievez works with students to ensure they have their technology essentials and helps find solutions when resources are lacking—a problem that has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as her elementary school is completely virtual. Poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence, disease, discrimination, abuse, and other challenges diminish students’ ability to focus on their studies, and she does what she can to address them, often using her Spanish-language skills to communicate with populations who don’t otherwise have easy access to identifying resources.

“Empowering others and helping them improve and overcome any problem in life is something I truly enjoy doing,” she said.

Having experienced food and housing insecurity herself, she ultimately sees herself working for Los Angeles County to create more opportunities for families to find and receive the necessary resources to thrive under all circumstances.

“There’s a lot of need, especially when it comes to just understanding and knowing what types of resources are out there,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know about resources or don’t know how to go about finding them, so I would like to be in a setting that helps people get ahold of those resources and help them out, whether it’s housing or anything that they need to get by to be able to better themselves.”

While attending Chico State, Nievez balanced her busy life with a rigorous academic schedule, remaining steadfast in her commitment to serve the community she grew up in—precisely the type of student Messner envisioned when considering the scholarship.

“She is the kind of person that I really think deserves this scholarship,” said Messner, who was recognized as the 2004 Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. “She just worked her tail off and is the type of student who really stands out.”

Humbled by the recognition, Nievez admits she was honored to have her hard work be rewarded.

“I have gone through so many negative experiences and barriers, but I have pushed through and am on my way to reaching my goals and an example to other women to never give up on themselves and their families,” she said.