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Humans of the U: Brenda Payan Medina

I’ve been involved in a lot of areas that are important to me outside of my engineering degree—I’ve worked at the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention, the Women’s Resource Center, the Center for Student Wellness and with the Utah Prison Education Project. All these positions work directly with students, which is why I decided to pursue a master’s degree in higher education at Columbia University next year. I feel really connected to students who may be struggling, I think because of my own background as a first-generation student. Neither of my parents graduated high school and my grandparents didn’t finish elementary school. It feels like a big step for myself and my siblings to reach a point where we’re graduating college.

I applied to the U through the College of Science ACCESS Scholarship program and when I first got here, I had kind of a hard time. I literally don’t think I would’ve stayed on campus if it weren’t for the ACCESS director at the time, who really advocated for me. I was planning on transferring back home to Price because I had a whole support system down there. Here, there are definitely people willing to help you, but it’s harder to reach out when you’re used to figuring everything out your own, like I had been. I want to use what I learned to help other people have an easier experience navigating college and living away from home, because it can be super overwhelming to try to balance everything.

I’ve seen discourse on social media saying you don’t always need a college degree to succeed. But for students where education has historically not been a part of their family, I think it’s still important to pursue higher education even if it’s  inaccessible to them. It’s one of the reasons I started working with the Utah Prison Education Project and the STEM Community Alliance Program with the arts manager, where I help plan art classes and exhibitions for students in juvenile facilities. It’s really cool because a lot of the students find a drive to pursue their projects when they know their work will be shown at galleries. Working with UPEP and STEMCAP has given me a different perspective about what education looks like and what works for different people, and I’ll hopefully continue working with this population in a similar program at Columbia.

My involvement in different areas of campus has really helped me solidify my own values and got me interested in social justice. I never would have thought to go to graduate school for higher education if I hadn’t spent time outside of my major. I don’t think that school and your career should be the only focus of your time in college because you’re really limiting your scope of what you know about life, who you interact with, and who you could be friends with. It’s so much more fun, interactive and fulfilling to let yourself enjoy different experiences and see where it takes you.

—Brenda Payan Medina from Price Utah, is majoring in materials sciences and engineering ‘24


  • Lisa Potter Research communications specialist, University of Utah Communications