Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education

Felisha Herrera Villarreal, PhD


Felisha Herrera Villarreal, PhD is the Director of the Research & Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE). She is also an associate professor of Postsecondary Education and Community College Leadership and affiliated faculty in the Joint PhD Program at San Diego State University (SDSU). Prior to joining SDSU, she served as an assistant professor of Community College Leadership and affiliated faculty in Public Policy at Oregon State University from 2012-2015. Dr. Herrera Villarreal completed her Ph.D. in Education (emphasis in Higher Education & Organizational Change) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she was a research analyst for the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). She also earned a master’s degree from UCLA, master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the University of New Mexico (UNM) and an associate’s degree from UNM-Taos (branch community college). Her scholarship is enhanced by nearly two decades of experience as a higher education professional at two- and four-year institutions, several Minority-Serving Institutions/Hispanic-Serving Institutions, including faculty and professional positions in student affairs, institutional research, and administration.  Her work is also informed by her own educational history as a community college graduate, low-income, first-generation college student, and motherscholar.

Dr. Herrera Villarreal is a consummate scholar, who has published in top tier, peer-reviewed journals, including: American Educational Research Journal (AERJ), Journal of Higher Education (JHE), Research in Higher Education (RIHE), and The Review of Higher Education (RHE), and has procured over $3.9 million in funding to support her research. She serves as the PI for several large-scale research projects, including two current NSF funded projects—ED-SYSTEMS (NSF DUE-1644990) & HSI-STEM (NSF DUE-1832528)—investigating the role of community colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and as Co-PI for ADAPT: A Pedagogical Decision-Making Study (NSF HRD-1759947). To inform system-wide change, her research employs advanced statistical techniques, including multilevel modeling. spatial analysis and social network analysis, to examine contextual factors—institutional (structure, process, and policy), geographic, demographic, political and economic contexts—that impact postsecondary outcomes for students of color. Her work encompasses several strands of scholarship including student mobility; community college pathways; underrepresented students in STEM; and a critical examination of policy issues related to diversity & equity in education.

Postdoctoral Research Fellows

Victoria C. Rodriguez-Operana, PhD

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Victoria C. Rodriguez-Operana, Ph.D. (she/her/hers) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE). As a postdoc, Dr. Rodriguez-Operana co-leads the research team on two NSF-funded projects examining the role of community colleges and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) in the STEM pathways of underrepresented students of color: ED-SYSTEMS (NSF DUE-1644990) & HSI-STEM (NSF DUE-1832528). In addition to taking an active role in research, she also teaches courses in Education Studies and Human Developmental Sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Dr. Rodriguez-Operana earned her B.A. in Psychology from UCSD and completed her M.A. and Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Human Development and Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her mixed-methods dissertation examined how family, peer, and school-based relationships shape the academic achievement and psychological adjustment of Filipino American adolescents, an understudied segment of the Asian American and Pacific Islander population. With nearly a decade of research experience in education, psychology, and human development, and publications in the Journal of Early Adolescence, Journal of Adolescent Research, and Asian American Journal of Psychology, her research broadly examines how social identities and relationships within proximal contexts (e.g., family, school) influence the developmental outcomes (e.g., academic, social, psychological) of students of color. Prior to joining the RES-ISTE team, Dr. Rodriguez-Operana was a member of UCLA’s Children’s Understanding of Economic and Social Inequality Lab and worked on several projects, including studies examining: persistence among community college students in CalWORKs, psychosocial benefits of racial/ethnic diversity in urban schools, children’s social identity development, and an elementary school dual-language immersion program. Dr. Rodriguez-Operana’s research reflects her commitment to understanding how to best support the academic success and well-being of individuals from diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

Gabriela Kovats Sánchez, PhD

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Dr. Gabriela Kovats Sánchez is an interdisciplinary researcher and educator who is deeply committed to education, having taught elementary, high school, and college levels over the last 14 years. Her work addresses the unique educational experiences of Indigenous Mexican students in the US, distinguishing their experiences from the pan-Latinx context and paying close attention to the complexity of multilayered colonialisms. Gabriela’s work sheds light on Latinx colonial attitudes and challenges monolithic notions of Latinidad that historically perpetuate the colonization and invisibility of Indigenous people. She is currently adjunct faculty at San Diego City College and San Diego State University in the Department of Chicana/o Studies where she teaches Chicanx and Indigenous history through a decolonial perspective. Prior to pursuing her PhD, Gabriela was Director of College and Career Success at Barrio Logan College Institute, a college prep non-profit organization for Latinx, first generation college students. Gabriela obtained her bachelor’s from UC Davis, her master’s in Latin American Studies from SDSU, and her PhD from Claremont Graduate University and SDSU’s Joint Doctoral Program in Education. Gabriela attributes her sociopolitical formation and academic drive to her transnational upbringing in Merced and Acapulco – and her parents’ tireless efforts to raise proud, bilingual, and resilient daughters.

Melo-Jean Yap, PhD

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Dr. Melo-Jean Yap is the Principal Investigator for “Influential Networks for Women of Color in STEM Community College Pathways”–a grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE # 1937777). She is also a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in NSF-funded grant, ADAPT: A Pedagogical Decision-Making Study (NSF HRD # 1759947) at San Diego State. Her research interests include modeling social contagions in complex systems, advocating for equity and inclusion of women and people of color in STEM fields, and developing student-centered critical pedagogical tools in classroomsVersatile Scholar: Dr. Yap’s interdisciplinary training in Biology, Education, and Ethnic Studies shaped her versatility in using concurrent methodologies to advance research on underrepresented groups in STEM fields. At UCLA, she studied the influences to the scientific thinking of women of color STEM majors in the community college via mixed methods approach of qualitative questionnaire and critical network theory. Insightful Insider: Her Biology training via National Institutes of Health (NIH) programs–MARC Scholars Program and MBRS-RISE Graduate Fellowship–and background in teaching Biology prepared her for navigating STEM spaces. Since 2013, Dr. Yap has also been a FASEB MARC Mentor, coaching undergraduates in presenting their research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Knowledge Broker: A knowledge broker, Dr. Yap hopes to conduct research that may help empower students and professors, as well as inform STEM praxis and policy. As a Richard J. Riordan Summer Intern at Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), she provided research support evaluating statewide K-12 Math placement policies. She is also the Project Director for STEM is LIT(eracies), a U.S. Department of Education (DOE) grant that trains middle school educators in integrating culturally relevant pedagogy into Science and Math curriculum. A first-generation college student, Dr. Yap earned her B.A. Black Studies (now Africana Studies) & B.S. Physiology from San Francisco State University, M.S. Biological Sciences from California State University, Los Angeles, and Ph.D in Education from UCLA.

Research Analysts

Marlena Wolfgramm

Senior Research Analyst

Marlena Wolfgramm is a PhD student at San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University Joint Doctoral Program in Education and currently working as a Senior Research Analyst with Dr. Herrera-Villarreal. She was surprised that the participants that were interviewed for the RE-SISTE project, were transfer underrepresented students of color in STEM, like herself had similar challenging experiences. Marlena attended community college before transferring to UC Santa Cruz, where she graduated with a B.A. in Psychobiology. She earned an M.A. in Education with an emphasis in teaching at Mills College and taught secondary science in Oakland. As a Pacific Islander, Marlena has mentored, tutored and conducted workshops for Pacific Islanders high school students on college, financial aid and cultural identity in her community. She continues to serve her community by researching the trajectories and persistence of Pacific Islanders in STEM. 

Diane Gaskin

Research Analyst

Diane Gaskin is a master’s student at San Diego State University in the Postsecondary Educational Leadership: Specialization in Student Affairs program. Her research interests are focused on the educational journey from junior high through higher education for students of color, LGBTQ+, low income, and first-generation student populations. She graduated from UC San Diego with a B.A. in Psychology. During her time and UCSD, she was involved with Queer Transgender People of Color as a Board Member and Student Affirmative Action organizations that influenced her student activism and current research interest. As a Clinical Research Associate during her undergraduate years, she worked in three studies with the Pain Lab for Chronic Back Pain, Psychosocial and Visual Feedback Intervention for Phantom Limb Pain, and Telehealth Outreach for Chronic Back Pain. Since completing her bachelor’s degree at UCSD, Diane has taught a freshman seminar focused on psychology commuter students at SDSU, and currently works as the Graduate Assistant for The Village at UCSD and supervises Student Success Mentors for transfer students and incoming freshmen. She strives to incorporate training and projects that bring awareness to the intersecting identities of students within the STEM fields and their experiences or resources available. Diane is also working with Dr. Herrera Villarreal as a Research Analyst for the Research & Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education. Her goal is to pursue a doctoral degree, and help institutions become student ready by improving policies and resources for marginalized and underrepresented populations through research.

Research Affiliates

Judith Hernández Chapar, PhD

Research Affiliate

Judith Hernández Chapar, Ph.D. serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE).  Dr. Hernández Chapar completed her Ph.D. in Education from Oregon State University with an emphasis on Community College Leadership. Her dissertation focused on the engagement experiences between Institutional Agents and Students of Color who were enroll at two-year community colleges. She earned her Masters of Social Work from Eastern Washington University and a Bachelors of Art in Women Studies as well as a Bachelors of Art in Psychology from Washington State University. Prior to joining the RES-ISTE team, Dr. Hernández Chapar served as an educational leader in the community college setting, serving as an Associate Dean of First Year Experience directing a Federal Title III grant at South Puget Sound Community College. Formerly, she worked as a Director of TRiO Programs at Lower Columbia College, where she secured over 1.8 million dollars in grant funding.  

Melissa A. Navarro Martell, PhD

Research Affiliate

Melissa A. Navarro Martell (she/her/hers), Ph.D., is a second-year Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies in the College of Education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, a Hispanic Serving Institution. Her research and teaching center the need to prepare critically conscious educators on the sociopolitical, ideological, cultural, and linguistic aspects of teacher preparation in general, and K-8 equitable science and dual-language education specifically; pushing the need to decolonize science education. Recently a project in which she serves as Senior Personnel was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the purpose of developing a program that assists in early-career STEM faculty retention. Furthermore, Dra. Navarro Martell teaches a) undergraduate courses around science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education (STEAM), b) Spanish science methods courses in the bilingual teacher credential program, and c) an academic discourse course in the Dual Language Master’s Program. Her experiences as an immigrant 6th grade student from Tijuana, México, inspired her path as an educator who understands bilingual learners. Dra. Navarro Martell is a former 4th and 8th grade social-justice math and science Spanish/English dual-language teacher.

Ariana Romero

Research Affiliate

Ariana Romero, a Sally Casanova Scholar, is a master’s student at San Diego State University in the Postsecondary Educational Leadership: Specialization in Student Affairs program. Her research interests focus on college pathways, first-generation and low-income students, peer mentorship, and Hispanic Serving Institutions. She transferred from community college to California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) and graduated with a B.S. in Human Services. During her time at CSUF, Ariana worked closely with a newly developing peer mentor program. This became a watershed moment in her academic career and led Ariana to seek opportunities to expand her knowledge on the process through which peer mentorship may influence academic trajectories. As a McNair Scholar, she embarked on her first research project, “Undergraduate Peer Mentoring: Do Relationships Matter for Latinos and Others?” To further expand her knowledge and develop her research skills, Ariana participated in the Summer Research Opportunity Program at the University of Michigan. Ariana is currently working with Dr. Herrera Villarreal as a Research Analyst for the Research & Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education. During her time at SDSU, Ariana has worked to develop and implement a peer mentor program that serves first-year LGBTQ+ commuter students who are predominantly people of color and is serving as interim Pride Center Coordinator for the 2018 Summer session. Ariana plans to pursue a doctoral degree. She aims to build a body of meaningful research and to mentor young scholars with the intent of increasing the presence of currently underrepresented groups in academia.

Michelle Ruiz

Research Affiliate

Michelle Ruiz is a first year doctoral student in education (with an emphasis in Teaching, Learning, and Culture) at San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University. Her primary research goal intends to examine the digital literacies of Latino students, specifically the digital communication practices of transnational and trans-border college students. Prior to joining SDSU/CGU, she was an instructional technologist and trainer at University of San Francisco, where she designed online courses and supported faculty in their implementation of educational technology. Her most recent e-learning design project was EnviRN-Evidence, an online training program for health professionals about environmental health risks, funded by the National Library of Medicine Express Outreach Award. At USF, she also received an M.A. degree in Digital Technologies for Teaching and Learning. In addition, Michelle Ruiz leads computing and digital security workshops at Ollin Calli, a binational grassroot organization that seeks to protect human labor right in the U.S.- Mexico border context.

Anthony Villarreal

Research Affiliate

Anthony Villarreal is a second year PhD student at San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University’s Joint Doctoral Program in Education. He earned a master’s degree in Counseling from Lewis and Clark College and a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Prior to pursuing a PhD, Anthony’s seven-year career in education primarily entailed working with students promoting college access, guiding students in the transition from high school to college, particularly for underrepresented, low-income, and first generation students. His professional experience includes school counseling at the middle/high school level in both Oregon and California; college outreach through GEAR UP, Upward Bound, and SDSU’s Compact for Success; educational policy development at the local/state level as an active member of the Oregon High School Emerging Bilingual Consortium and as a data specialist analyst for the Oregon Migrant Education Service Center; and as a residential counselor working with undocumented youth. Drawing from professional and personal experience as the eldest son of immigrant parents from Nayarit and as a low-income, first generation college student. His dissertation research is focused on promoting educational outcomes for students in “new Latino destinations”. His broader research agenda investigates several strands of inquiry pertinent to Latino communities. He currently is involved in research studies examining on peer-mentoring for Latino youth; defining educational spaces that promote Latino student outcomes; and STEM pathways for underrepresented students.

Maria-Jose Zeledon-Perez, Ed.D.

Research Affiliate

Dr. María-José Zeledón-Pérez, Ed.D. (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor in the Communication Studies Department at San Diego City College and the co-director of their World Cultures Program. In her prior position, she worked as the HSI/STEM professional learning coordinator and as a consultant for the Committee for Diversity, Action, Inclusion and Equity (CDAIE) at San Diego Mesa College.

In addition, she graduated with a doctorate in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Community College Leadership (CCLEAD) at SDSU. Her research focuses on the impact frequency of interaction between institutional agents and STEM students of color has on their educational outcomes at HSI and non-HSI community colleges. She recently co-published an article in the book (Under)Represented Latin@s in STEM.

María-José also volunteers as the vice-president for the SDSU Community College Leadership Alumni Group, she is a research affiliate for the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RESISTE) at SDSU and a guest editor for the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, graduate student’s special edition. 


Undergraduate Research Fellows

Aileen Cerrillos

Undergraduate Research Fellow

Aileen Cerrillos is an undergraduate student at San Diego State University, who is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. Aileen works as an undergraduate research fellow with Dr. Herrera Villarreal and her team at the RES Insititute. Aileen is a student activist at SDSU and served as the 2017-18 Chairperson for the Association of Chicana Activists (AChA). She led AChA’s annual high school conference designed to empower young Latinas through higher education. She also helped create many events for Chicanx students to explore cultural and political issues on campus. Currently, Aileen works for the SDSU Pride Center as a Peer Educator Lead, where she creates programming by and for the QTPOC (Queer and/or Trans People of Color) community. Her research interests are informed by her work and lived experiences as a first-generation Latinx student, including reforming the public higher education system, navigating academia as a student of color, and understanding the role of student activism at universities and educational institutions. Aileen hopes to continue pursuing her commitment to the success of diverse students by pursuing a Master’s in Post-Secondary Education Leadership and a Doctorate in Education.

Pablo Cuellar

Undergraduate Research Fellow

Pablo Cuellar is an undergraduate student at San Diego State University, who is pursuing their Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies with minors in Biology and Sociology respectively. Pablo is working as an undergraduate research fellow with Dr. Herrera Villarreal, Dr. Rodriguez-Operana, and their team at the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE). Their research interests stem from their early days at SDSU as a biology major working at The Pride Center and informed by their Women’s Studies major and lived experience as a first-generation queer Latinx student. This includes how students of color, low-income, first-generation, queer individuals navigate STEM fields in higher education, as well as the decimation of scientism and neoliberalism in the current day, and how it affects trans folk, POCs, and queer individuals. They currently are involved in the Dignified Learning Project, a group that aims to make education equitable for all students through advocacy, training and outreach activities. Pablo is also part of Pride House mentor program at the Pride Center at SDSU where they work with and mentor LGBTQ+ identified first-year, commuter students in addition to organizing programs per their needs. They hope to continue their education by pursing a Ph.D. in Feminist Studies at UCSC as well as an MD to pursue work addressing the health needs of low-income LGBTQIA communities. 

Princess Dela Cruz

Undergraduate Research Fellow

Princess Dela Cruz is an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego where she is pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Developmental Sciences and a minor in Ethnic Studies. Prin is working as an undergraduate research fellow with Dr. Herrera Villarreal, Dr. Rodriguez-Operana, and their team at the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education. Her research interests include social development among children and adolescents, cultural and familial influences in education, experiences of first generation college students, and supporting community health among underrepresented minorities. She is currently a member of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-health honor society at UCSD, where she is involved with community service at the Bannister Family House. Princess plans on taking a gap year after completing her undergraduate education to work in the community health field serving low-income communities before applying to graduate school to pursue her master’s degree in Public Health.

Briana Márquez

Undergraduate Research Fellow

Briana Márquez is an undergraduate student at San Diego State University who is pursuing her Bachelors of Arts degree in Communication with a minor in Counseling and Social Change. Briana is working with Dr. Herrera as an undergraduate research fellow for the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE). Her research interests focus on the narratives of people of color, low income, first generation, queer individuals and how identities that are composed of our cultural, historical, political, and personal experiences navigate how we make meaning of the world. She currently is the Vice President of the Counseling and Social Change Club and is involved in many honor societies including the communication major honor society, Lambda Phi Eta, honor society, Phi Eta Sigma, and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. Briana is also the lead Pride House mentor at the Pride Center at SDSU where she works and mentors LGBTQ+ identified first-year, commuter students in addition to organizing programs per their needs. Her hopes for the future are to further her education and continue serving underrepresented communities.

Maryana Saoor

Undergraduate Research Fellow

Maryana Saoor is an undergraduate student at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Human Biology with a minor in Human Development. Maryana is working as an undergraduate research fellow with Dr. Herrera Villarreal, Dr. Rodriguez-Operana and the team at the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE). Maryana moved to the United States from the Middle East when she was fifteen years old. She is a first-generation college student and a second-language learner. Maryana’s difficult moments shaped her character. From a young age, she learned great life lessons that led her to appreciate even the little things in life. Maryana attended several community colleges before transferring to UCSD, allowing her to understand the barriers faced by underrepresented minorities in STEM at 2- and 4-year institutions. Informed by her personal experiences in higher education, Maryana hopes that her work with the RES-ISTE team will help make community colleges a better place for students. Maryana loves sharing her experiences with others, and helping others fulfill their dreams. Maryana’s research interests include human health, cultural and familial influences in education, prenatal health, experiences of first-generation college students, enhancing community health among underrepresented minorities and low-income families. Maryana’s dream career is to become a pediatrician. In addition to her research with the RES-ISTE team, she is currently a researcher at UC San Diego Health- Pediatrics where she works on finding ways to prevent diseases passed to infants through lactation. Maryana plans to apply to medical school after obtaining her bachelor’s degree.