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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Denise Villarrial Nealon Denise Villarrial Nealon

Validation Resonates for ‘That Kid That Wasn’t Going to Make It.’

Denise Villarrial Nealon is among seven SDSU students and alumni recipients of a CSU program to develop future faculty.
By Michael Klitzing

“They had me at social justice.”

Denise Villarrial Nealon still deals with that little voice in the back of her head from time to time. The one that whispers lies about how academia isn’t for people like her. The one that sows doubt about how maybe she’s not quite young enough or not quite brilliant enough to achieve a Ph.D.

Fortunately, her improbable educational journey has produced occasional moments — big, noisy triumphs — that have allowed her to drown out the pernicious falsehoods.

Nealon’s latest victory over imposter syndrome occurred just last month as she was one of seven San Diego State University students and recent alumni to be accepted as fellows into the Chancellor's Doctoral Incentive Program (CDIP) for 2022-23 — a program that aims to train promising doctoral students to become new California State University faculty.

And this was after the little voice told her not to bother applying.

“I couldn't believe it when I got the acceptance letter — it was a feeling of elation,” said Nealon, entering her second year in SDSU’s Joint Ph.D. Program in Education with Claremont Graduate University (JDP). “It was validation that, yeah, I should be here. You go through so many ups and downs. Even last semester I wondered if I was going to keep with the program — I got over that, thankfully.

“I'm just excited for what I can do now.”

Given what she has already accomplished despite the odds, the possibilities appear limitless.

A native of North San Diego County, Nealon embarked on her current path at MiraCosta College as a 40-year-old adult re-entry student. She was a domestic violence survivor and a newly single mother of three. She decided that if she was going to survive as the sole provider for her kids, she was going to need to go back to school.

Her education as an adolescent had been a negative experience, part of a troubled youth that still kindles her self-doubt.

“I'm that kid that wasn't going to make it,” Nelson recalls. “I remember one of my teachers when I was growing up told me, ‘If you even make it past a certain age, I'll be surprised.’ I started thinking maybe she was right.”

Step by step, Nealon began to prove everyone — including herself — wrong.

Change of plans

She entered MiraCosta with hopes of becoming a bookkeeper but she found herself drawn to the liberal arts. Nealon finally felt what she calls her “flutter” when she started to study sociology under the mentorship of professor Bruce Hoskins. She soon discovered a passion and a purpose: working to dismantle and rebuild systems that perpetuate inequality.

Nealon earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology at Cal State San Marcos, which led to teaching positions at MiraCosta and Miramar College. Then in 2021 — in open defiance of the naysayer in her head — she took the plunge to become Dr. Nealon, applying to SDSU’s JDP program, which seeks scholars committed to democratic schooling, social justice and equitable educational outcomes for all students.

“They had me at social justice,” Nealon said, laughing. “I remember our first in-person meeting when we all got together for the first time since COVID, and I just felt at home. Like I belonged. I've never really had that feeling before.”

Nealon now hopes to make the CSU her permanent home, and the CDIP fellowship has potentially opened the door to exactly that. She will receive financial support to attend and present at conferences, mentorship from a faculty advisor — in her case, JDP Director Marva Cappello — professional development and networking opportunities with past fellows.

“This will hopefully unlock that pathway to doing what I want to do,” Nealon said. “I can't change the world, but what if I am that one drop in the ocean that creates a ripple for a student who is going to change the world? I think it's those ripples that can become a big tsunami.”

Other SDSU-affiliated CDIP recipients

Fernando Garcia ('17) is an alumnus of the SDSU Postsecondary Educational Leadership: Specialization in Student Affairs (PELSA) master’s program. He is currently in a Ph.D. program at UCLA.

Cassandra Horg-Aaron ('20) is an alumna of the SDSU Postsecondary Educational Leadership: Specialization in Student Affairs (PELSA) master’s program. She is currently in a Ph.D. program at the University of North Texas.

Talia Kieu ('20) earned a bachelor's degree in public health from SDSU. She is currently in a MSPH-Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Griselda Paredes is a student of the Joint Ph.D. Program in Education with Claremont Graduate University.

Yousef Sangsefidi is a student in the Engineering Joint Doctoral Program with the University of California San Diego, seeking a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering

Marisa Torres-Ruiz is a student in the School of Public Health’s Joint Doctoral Program with UCSD.