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Rising Stars - Graciela Sandoval

Ben Sullivan

Graduate student finds way to channel energy

By David King, University Marketing

Not long after she adopted a dog for companionship, Graciela Sandoval came home to a shocking sight in her San Marcos apartment.

Naya — a cross between a chow and a golden retriever, essentially a four-legged ball of fluff — had shredded the couch and started chewing the wall-to-wall carpet.

Even for the easygoing Sandoval, who is working on her master’s in interdisciplinary studies, her dog’s adventures were a bit much. A visit to the veterinarian confirmed that Naya didn’t have an appetite for polyurethane foam. She just needed to burn off energy.

“So I decided, ‘Maybe I need to start running with her,’” says Sandoval, who wasn’t a runner at the time.

As with many things in her life, the graduate assistant in the Department of Campus Recreation didn’t go at it halfway. Less than a month after she and Naya started running together, they competed in a 5K race.

“I had never run one, and she hadn’t run with a person,” Sandoval says with a laugh. “She was chasing squirrels, and she kept cutting in front of me and tripping me. People were passing us the whole time, and it was a big mess. But I’m proud to say we finished.”

And they’ve been at it ever since. Just about every morning, Sandoval and Naya take a run from her apartment to the banks of the San Marcos River and back.

Naya, some of her enormous puppy energy expended, has quit chewing the furniture. Her master, meanwhile, has found a wide range of ways to expend her energy.

Getting involved

Sandoval, a native of Los Angeles and the youngest of four children of Mexican immigrants, grew up in a household that placed a high value on education.

“My mom taught us that education was the big deal,” she says. “I found out later why — her family didn’t have enough money to send her to even middle school, so at the age of 11 she finished elementary school and that was it.”

She became the first member of her family to attend a four-year college when she received a full scholarship and was accepted to UCLA. But for the first two years, she lived at home and did little besides go to class and study.

Then she realized that there was more to college life than going to class. She moved away from home — not very far, but away, she says — and got more involved on campus. She worked as a designer for the Daily Bruin until her skills earned her a position in the marketing office at the John Wooden Center, the hub of the university’s campus recreation facilities.

As she completed her bachelor’s in Spanish linguistics and Latin American studies, and afterward, she learned not only the skills of marketing, but the value of becoming a part of the college community.

“College is about being social, too,” she says. “It’s about working out at the gym, and fighting for a cause: getting people to vote, saving wildlife, something.”

She also learned that getting ahead often involved more education, so she joined a professional organization for recreational sports. She started applying for graduate positions, and wound up interviewing for a job at Texas State at the group’s national convention in Austin.

The adjustment

Her application stood out to Kristy Caldwell, a UCLA graduate herself and the associate director of campus recreation at Texas State, who interviewed Sandoval and then hired her for a job marketing the department. Caldwell knew she could do the job — which would include promoting the opening of the expanded Student Recreation Center — but Texas State wound up with a bonus.

“Her enthusiasm is just catching,” Caldwell says. “She has that catchy, you-want-to-be-around-her attitude.”

It wasn’t easy for a lifelong Angelino to come to a small town in Texas. For a while, she knew virtually no one outside the Campus Rec offices. She wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to study. And there was the matter of the furniture-eating dog, too.

But as she and Naya got out on morning runs and evening walks, and as she got to know the staff at Campus Rec — from the administrative assistants to the student workers to the management — she blossomed.

“She basically jumped into everything,” Caldwell says. “She does everything in our department. She gets our students and goes rock climbing. She got her instructor certification to teach group exercise classes. She goes out and supports sports clubs. She gets intramural teams together.”

And she volunteers. She did graphic design work for the Cancer Awareness Movement for Colleges and Organizations. She has been a part of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And thanks to her experiences speaking to California high school students on behalf of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, she will talk to any group.

In fact, it’s that energy for involvement that has led her academically. After starting out working on a master’s of business administration, she has changed to a multidisciplinary approach, studying business administration, health administration and mass communication.

Her master’s research project is on the effects of participation in the rec center, and how it helps students integrate into and stay a part of the university community. She wants to expand that research into all forms of student retention — especially among minority students — when she starts work on a doctorate. In the course of her research, she has found precious little research on the topic of keeping minority students in school.

“I’m looking forward to doing it, and I want to do it here at Texas State,” she says. “I feel that I would love to be a professor. I feel like I could bring a lot from my background, the way I was raised, being a first-generation college student, being the first-in-my-family college student.”

The future

A job as a professor — or an administrator — would be ideal, says Sandoval.

“I don’t know exactly where it will lead me,” she says. “There’s a big growth in Texas and in California in the Hispanic population. I would love to do something here or in California or somewhere in between. I don’t mind. Just somewhere I feel there’s a need for increasing minority retention rates in colleges, especially in places where there are large populations.”

She continues to broaden her education during her time in San Marcos, even learning how to handle a dog — and a personality — with a world of energy.

“I started getting up at 6:30 a.m. and run with Naya to the river and back before going to work,” Sandoval says. “It helped me as much as it helped her; I was more focused and calm at work. I used the time to clear my head.

“Also, seeing the river in the morning, sometimes with fog and geese and ducks, was a very calming experience. After two years of running together, Naya and I love it.”


Rising Stars

Graciela Sandoval file

Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.

Education: Graduated from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles; BA in Spanish linguistics and Latin American studies, UCLA; MS in interdisciplinary studies, Texas State (projected for summer, 2011)

She said it: “You need to socially integrate with your professors. That’s how students survive and thrive in college, with really good relationships with professors.”

“I’m willing to give of my time because I feel like it’s my calling.”

“College isn’t just about going to class and getting a degree. It’s also about being social, living on your own, learning about budgeting time and budgeting money.”

About her: Bonnie Uresti, student worker in Campus Rec: “She is an overachiever and has introduced me to different aspects of my job that I would not have been aware of without her.”

“She encourages team-building among the marketing staff by having us bring potluck dishes on occasion to work — and remembering everyone’s birthdays.”