By Marya Jones Barlow

Student Government President Monique ReynaAs CI’s Student Government President Monique Reyna prepared to address more than 15,000 Commencement guests, she admitted to being more than a little nervous.

“It’s intimidating,” the 29-year-old said. “When I give a speech, I’m still afraid I sound ‘ghetto.’ But it means so much to stand on that platform in front of my family and CI classmates. This never seemed possible to me.”

Not long ago, Reyna would have scoffed at the idea of being Student Government President or even attending college. Raised by a struggling single working mother on the outskirts of Fresno, she grew up surrounded by poverty and gang violence, and at times knew hunger and homelessness. To help out, Reyna and her brothers picked oranges, sold nopales and cleaned lunch tables at school to earn free meals. When she graduated from high school, Reyna entered clerical work and found a comfortable secretarial job at a law firm.

But then two events shattered her world. Reyna was hit by an SUV, leaving her temporarily wheelchair-bound and unable to work during recovery. A year later, her younger brother, Johnny, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“I reached my lowest point,” she said. “One day, I was sitting across from a park where all the neighborhood kids played. It just hit me: These kids had the odds stacked against them. They had nobody who believed in them. I didn’t want that. I knew I had to do something.”

Reyna enrolled in Fresno City College, determined to become a teacher for disadvantaged children. A speaker in one of her classes encouraged her to try student government. Much to her surprise, she interviewed and was appointed Student Senator, then later promoted to President, representing more than 24,000 students.

“I realized that I could be a voice for struggling college students,” she said. “It was amazing, eye-opening; I loved it.”

After transferring to CI  —  living away from home for the first time in 26 years  —  Reyna flourished in campus life. She majored in Liberal Studies, minored in Political Science, founded Tomorrow’s Teachers and participated in the Leaders in Educational Awareness Program.

She also found herself drawn back into to Student Government. She became President of the Student Programming Board in 2014 and was elected President of CI in 2015.

Reyna’s proudest moments include working with peers to create a campus food pantry, highlighting social justice issues in the Noon Forum panel discussion series and promoting student wellness with #FitCI.

“I’m most proud of the organization we’ve built,” she said. “Amazing, passionate people who care about the students. Student government is rewarding, even if people don’t say ‘thank you.’ To see someone taking advantage of the opportunity that higher education presents  —  that’s the reward.”

After graduating, Reyna plans to work for a nonprofit focusing on education and poverty while studying for the GRE and the LSAT. Her goal is to obtain a Master of Public Administration and Juris Doctor degree so she can run her own nonprofit serving low-income communities.

“Losing my brother, being hungry, being homeless  —  I consider all of that something I had to go through to get where I am today,” she said. “CI has been a bigger blessing than I ever thought imaginable. The people here believed in me and made me believe in myself. I know I can get through anything because now I have a greater sense of purpose in helping my community.”

© Spring 2016 / Volume 20 / Number 01 / Bi-annual