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Alumni Spotlight // Community

COMPASSION, COURAGE AND LEADERSHIP

UCSB Orientation Assistant Director and Adsum Co-Founder Maritza Meija-Wilson `02
Brandon Sonntag Borgia `93
A Great Gaucho Leader: Maritza Meija-Wilson `02, co-founder of Adsum Education Foundation and UCSB’s Assistant Director of Orientation Programs and Parent Services

In 2010, Maritza Meija-Wilson `02, Travis Wilson `02, Jonathan Wang `02 and Debra Roets launched the nonprofit Adsum Education Foundation to help undocumented students access their professional and academic dreams and goals in higher education. They named their Foundation after the Latin word adsum, meaning “I am here.”

“I am here,” is a statement that not only drives the foundation Meija-Wilson helped launch – it is the very spirit of her career as a dynamic education administrator and community leader at UC Santa Barbara.

In May 2016, Meija-Wilson joined U.S. Senate Historian Dr. Betty K. Koed, Helpr founders Becka Klauber Richter ’07 and Kasey Edwards ’07 and State Sen. Jean Fuller Ph.D. ’99 in a panel discussion about women in the workplace moderated by Nicolasa Sandoval Ph.D. ’07 at the UCSB Alumni Association’s Exceptional Women, Exceptional Gauchos event at the Bacara Spa & Resort in Goleta, California. “I look to my family first,” said Mejia-Wilson at the conclusion of the panel discussion, recalling the strong women in her life. “They saw me as a chance to break the cycle of poverty.”

After graduating with a degree in global studies from UCSB, Meija-Wilson went on to earn her master’s degree in public administration at California State University-Northridge. Her dedication to community service drew her to serve as the outreach manager at the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, where she developed new programs and strategies implemented throughout Santa Barbara County. She was also part of the 2015-2016 cohort of the Katherine Harvey Fellows Program, and continues to serve at the Adsum Education Foundation as secretary and founding member of the board.

At UCSB, she works as the assistant director of UCSB’s Orientation Programs and Parent Services, supervising and guiding the Orientation team who serve over 5,000 students and 2,500 Gaucho family members every year. She also helps develop bilingual presentations and resource materials for incoming families, and trains staff members about cross-cultural communication, health, safety and diversity.

In 2016, Meija-Wilson took her outreach work one step further by starting her own professional development service Land the Job, providing career coaching and job search counseling for recent college graduates.

Meija-Wilson has received numerous honors and recognitions for her work with underrepresented communities, and advancing scholarship and inclusion in Santa Barbara. In 2006, she received the Advisor of the Year Award from the Pacific Affiliate of Collage and University Residence Halls (PACURH). In 2012, Meija-Wilson and the Adsum Education Foundation team were honored as Local Heroes by the Santa Barbara Independent. She also received the 2016 Margaret T. Getman Award, given to University staff, faculty members and departments that have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the quality of student life.

In this Alumni Q&A, Meija-Wilson talks about the special people she met during her student days at UC Santa Barbara, her vision for Adsum Education Foundation and why she continues to work toward bettering students’ futures at her alma mater.

Where did you grow up? What were you fascinated by when you were a young teen?

I was born and raised in Orange County, California. Most of my childhood was spent in Laguna Hills. As a young teen, I was obsessed with alternative and grunge rock -- Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, Radiohead. I loved school and reading, and was super involved with the Model United Nations program at my high school.

I was always into drawing – I loved drawing since second grade. I wound up doing paint jobs to supplement income during college. I often did “odds and ends” house painting. It wasn’t always artistic.

What drew you to study at UCSB? What were some of your first impressions of UCSB as a freshman?

Honestly, I was so lucky to have stumbled into UCSB. I chose it because it was the perfect distance from Orange County (not too close, not too far), and it was a school that I would be proud to graduate from. I had no idea until I got here how much there was to appreciate. I loved UCSB from the first moment that I stepped foot here. My first impression was that this place had to be the most beautiful campus on earth. Between Campus Point and the mountains, it felt idyllic. I loved my classes, even though I immediately felt that I was in over my head academically, and that Admissions had made a colossal mistake letting me in!

I lived in San Miguel residence hall (the best hall, even today!), and I made some great connections my first year, most notably with Travis Wilson, who is now my husband, and Jonathan Wang, my best friend. We all lived in San Miguel and got into a lot of mischief together. I had come from a very strict household and even being able to stay out until dawn and eat all the Woodstock’s I wanted felt magical.

What made you decide on your major? And what was the academic environment like for you as you pursued your major?

I fumbled around in many different departments before finally finding Global Studies during the end of my second year. Professors Juergensmeyer and Appelbaum opened a whole new door of academia for me. I had always had a keen interest in global politics and structures, and I truly can say that I enjoyed every minute of every Global Studies class I took. I soaked it all in and managed to do well in those classes because I was so passionate and interested in the topics. The academic environment in Global Studies felt like a family. Jody, the undergraduate advisor, helped me so much. She worked with me when I hit challenges, and she valued me as a student.

My classmates were bright, and pushed me to think about the world in different ways. I love the idea that students in Global Studies today would have the added benefit of studying alongside so many more international students.

Tell us about your first jobs as a student and right after graduation. What were some of your biggest challenges - and what were some highlights from those first jobs?

After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land a job as an Assistant Resident Director in Santa Cruz Hall on campus. I had been a Resident Assistant for two years, and was hired as a full-time professional. The highlights back then are the same for me now – working with undergraduate students as a Student Affairs professional is invigorating. College students are at such a critical and exciting chapter of their lives. They are getting to know themselves as adults and testing boundaries. They are bright, energetic, optimistic, and so much fun. I loved working with my students in Housing, and am so lucky that I have the same excitement to work with students today.

What inspired you to found the Adsum Education Foundation?

Adsum Education Foundation came to be when we realized that there was such a huge need in the community. I worked for a scholarship provider that helped many students access college, but there was absolutely no funding available to help undocumented students pursue post-secondary education. It was heartbreaking to work with talented students who had earned admission into great universities, and tell them that their college dreams would be postponed or permanently stopped because of lack of financial support. Students were working so hard, and trying to build productive lives in the United States – we wanted to do whatever we could to support that. It was especially important to Travis, Jon, and I that we try to give students a bit of the experience that we had been privileged enough to enjoy as students. We had taken so much for granted, and we wanted to reward students who truly understand the value of education and were not going to waste any opportunity.

What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges for undocumented students at UCSB today - and what are you working on right now to provide better support for these young people?

The most obvious challenges are lack of financial aid and the fear of deportation for themselves or their family members. The average Adsum scholarship recipient comes from a family of five with an average family income of less than $35,000 – limited resources mean that our scholarships can truly make a huge impact. Additionally, our students are dealing with major issues just under the surface – the political instability during this election year has a huge psychological effect; and many students are trying to navigate through a broken immigration system.

Right now, we are looking at ways to advocate for our students after they graduate and are trying to establish themselves in the community. Many of our supporters are astonished to learn the grim reality of the immigration system. Even for students that have been in the United States since infancy or early childhood, are excelling academically, and are graduating with degrees in engineering, business, education, etc. – there are no easy paths, and for many they have absolutely no options for legal residency under our current federal policies.

What do you love most about your current job?

Working in Orientation, I get to be a part of the transition to UCSB. The new students coming to Orientation are often so excited, so completely thrilled to have been admitted. They have just been through the stress of their senior year in high school, or two long years at community college. It is so exciting to welcome them to the university, to share some of the amazing opportunities that will be available to them, and to reassure them that they made a great decision. Our department employs over 30 exceptional undergraduate students – leaders from all over campus – and they make every day exciting, challenging, and fun. My typical day involves working with the great team at the Student Resource Building, planning for workshops, trainings, and preparing different aspects of the program.

Maritza Meija-Wilson `02 and Travis Wilson `02
Partners in Leadership and Advicacy: Maritza Meija-Wilson `02 and her husband Travis Wilson `02 co-founded the Adsum Education Foundation with Jonathan Wang `02 and Debra Roets in 2010.

How did you and Travis meet? What is it like to work together on projects/programs that help UCSB and its students?

Travis and I met in January of our freshman year. He lived on the 8th floor, and I lived on the 5th floor of our residence hall. Some of the guys on his floor had organized a boxing match in a floor lounge (not a very bright idea), and I went up to watch with some of my hallmates. It was not late at all, but Travis was there in his pajamas, and I thought, “Who does this guy think he is?” We became friends and were close for all four years of school, but we did not get together as a couple until after graduation.

I am so proud of the work that Travis and the Alumni Association do for Gauchos. It is inspiring to know that we are part of a community that cares about each other, where people are willing to reach out and support the next generation.

Why is it important for alumni to be advocates for UCSB students?

I think it is so important to recognize that students today face new and unprecedented challenges that we were not as impacted by 15 or 20 years ago. Students are grappling with less economic opportunity after graduation, and with much more societal pressure to succeed. UCSB students are so incredibly gifted – they are intelligent, talented, and motivated. I know that there is a lot of talk about the doom of the future because of their dependence on technology and social media, but from my perspective they are simply building new norms and structures that are working well for them. I am excited to be a part of the future that they create.

What do you do on your days off?

My real hobby is eating – I pride myself on being a food connoisseur of our local cuisine and enjoy a night out with Travis and friends. On a more healthy note, I love to go for urban hikes all over Santa Barbara and log a lot of miles on weekends with our dog, Noli.

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