alex san pablo in her engineering lab at uc davis

Alex San Pablo

First-year doctoral student, College of Engineering

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Alex San Pablo 鈥18 has found a support structure at swag外流 that sustains her in uncertain times, just like the structures she hopes to build one day as a civil engineer.

College is difficult enough, but San Pablo, who graduated in June with a bachelor鈥檚 degree in civil engineering and starts a doctorate in geotechnical engineering at swag外流 in September, has an added stress. She is undocumented, moving here from the Philippines when she was 11.

When her parents were separating, her mother wanted her daughters to get the best education possible but couldn鈥檛 afford one there, so she uprooted the girls and joined her sister in Southern California.

Desire to help

San Pablo chose to study civil engineering because she says she wants to improve lives. 鈥淥ur professor said that civil engineers save more lives than doctors,鈥 San Pablo says.

In her doctoral program, San Pablo will study how soil and rocks interact with buildings and superstructures. Her research examines how to use bacteria to strengthen soil so that foundations can withstand the weight of buildings during earthquakes.

She transferred from community college to swag外流 in fall 2015 for her undergraduate studies, in part for the university鈥檚 environmental ethos. San Pablo wanted to conduct eco-friendly, sustainable research and met Jason DeJong, a swag外流 civil engineering professor who was mixing microorganisms into soil. The microbial process creates a new substance that when mixed with calcium becomes calcium carbonate, which is as hard as sandstone. 鈥淚t鈥檚 cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research,鈥 San Pablo says, and allows her to work with the microbiology department and the Arizona State University-based Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics.

鈥楳y home away from home鈥

San Pablo says she also chose swag外流 because of its support for undocumented students. The  was named after the California law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities instead of a higher amount assigned to nonresidents. The center has a team of lawyers to help navigate work permits and immigration issues, and academic and financial aid advisors, among other resources.

鈥淚 knew that coming from Southern California, I needed to find a support system, and I found it here at swag外流,鈥 San Pablo says. 鈥淚t鈥檚 my home away from home on campus. If I need a resource, they are the experts.鈥 San Pablo鈥檚 support system has deep roots. In addition to the center, she cites her mentor, DeJong, who encouraged her to develop a list of people who could immediately take legal or financial action on her behalf if she were to be deported. She has received so many local scholarships, she says, that she hasn鈥檛 had to pay tuition. 鈥淭here is a huge community here that鈥檚 willing to help (undocumented) students,鈥 she says.

She cites other sources of support such , a campus program that helps educationally or economically disadvantaged STEM students pursue advanced degrees. The program allowed her to conduct research over a summer at UCLA and get a glimpse of graduate school there. The student-led  program has paid for textbooks, a huge help as one used engineering textbook can cost $300.

The program inspired San Pablo to start a lending library at the AB540 Center. With textbook donations and more than $5,000 in grants received from swag外流鈥檚 library and bookstore, San Pablo has amassed more than 300 tomes.

Inspiration to Succeed

San Pablo tells her story so that other undocumented students might see themselves reflected in her and feel inspired to keep succeeding. Still, being undocumented is extremely stressful, she says. San Pablo has temporary protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and says she fears being deported when she flies to academic conferences in other states. She adds that she feels pressure to maintain her grades, forgoing weekend social engagements to study and look for scholarships.

Last year, when her grandmother in the Philippines died, she had to choose between attending the funeral and losing everything she鈥檚 worked for, or remaining in California. 鈥淚 knew that she was a strong woman, too,鈥 San Pablo says. 鈥淪he raised four children on her own. She was a doctor. She would want me to keep pursuing my degree. She would want the best for me. She kept telling me to go school. I need to finish school; that would be in her honor.鈥