Three Sacramento State alums win 2019 Estrella awards

Sacramento State was well represented at the 2019 Estrella awards, which were presented Dec. 10: Three of the four honorees are Hornet alums.

Leslie Valdivia-Rivas ’14 (Public Relations), co-founder of Vive Cosmetics, received the Rising Estrella award; Maritza Davis ’07 (Public Relations), vice president of experiences and social responsibility for the Sacramento Kings, received the Inspiration Estrella Award; and Alice Perez ’99 (Finance and Insurance), a director with AT&T External Affairs, was honored with the Legacy Estrella Award.

The awards are given annually by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SHCC) to recognize Latinas making an impact in the Sacramento region.

In addition to the alumna honorees, Sacramento State alumna and award-winning mariachi singer Beatriz Figueroa ’19 (Sociology) provided entertainment during a lunch before the award program. Figueroa is a familiar face to the Hornet Family, having served as the national anthem singer at Commencement for the past three years.

Davis, who was introduced by SHCC Board Chair and Sacramento State Vice President for Public Affairs and Advocacy Phil Garcia, spent a decade redefining community in Sacramento as the co-founder, with her husband and fellow alum Roshuan, of Unseen Heroes, a marketing and events agency responsible for events such as GATHER: Oak Park and the Midtown Farmers Market. Last year, she took a position with the Kings, where her responsibilities include managing programs such as the Junior Kings and more than 350 community events annually.

In her remarks, she encouraged attendees to continue to work on behalf of the city and the city’s youth.

“Sacramento is an amazing city, we are amazing people that all come together,” Davis said. “It really does take a village every single day.”

At AT&T, Perez is the public safety and emergency response lead and a liaison to local governments and nonprofits in 11 counties. She previously worked as president/CEO of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and as vice president and director of U.S. Bank’s national multicultural banking initiatives. She has been recognized widely for her work in the community, and currently serves on the board of the University Foundation at Sacramento State.

Perez was introduced by her daughter Renee Nelson, and took the stage to standing ovation. In her remarks, she highlighted the importance of putting words into actions when it comes to making change in Sacramento.

“It’s important that we lead the change that we want to see, and we don’t just talk about the things that need to occur to make a difference in the community, but that we take a stance and that all of us owns it,” she said.

Valdivia-Rivas was unable to attend the ceremony, and her sister accepted the award on her behalf. The first in her family to graduate from college, Valdivia-Rivas co-founded Vive Cosmetics in 2016 after realizing the lack of Latinx representation in the beauty industry. The company has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue and Latina magazine.

Three-time alum works to help upcoming teachers better resemble students they will lead

Before college, Karina Figueroa-Ramirez had never been in a class led by a Latinx teacher.

When she became a teacher years later, many people assumed she either taught Spanish or kindergarten.

“What really made me think was when people would tell me I didn’t look like a teacher,” Figueroa-Ramirez said. “What does a teacher look like?”

Throughout California, education faces a major challenge: Teachers of the state’s K-12 students don’t reflect the state’s diversity. That means, like Figueroa-Ramirez, a child can go through school never seeing someone who looks like them at the front of the classroom.

Today, the three-time Sacramento State alumna is drawing on that experience at her alma mater, where she is the College of Education’s equity coordinator. Through her work, she plays a leading role in the College’s efforts to recruit, retain and graduate into the teaching profession first-generation, multi-cultural and multi-lingual students.

Figueroa-Ramirez’s primary job responsibility is advising students both within and outside the College of Education who might be considering teaching. When meeting with students, she works to learn and understand their academic and professional goals, so that she is better able to anticipate their questions and connect them to on- and off-campus resources.

Karina Figueroa-Ramirez’s work as the College of Education’s equity coordinator includes overseeing the College’s equity peer mentors, who in turn help support Sacramento State undergraduate students considering teaching as a profession. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

She also oversees the College’s educational equity peer mentors and is heavily involved in campus outreach efforts, such as establishing and maintaining “Future Teacher Clubs” at local high schools and community colleges.

“It’s a privilege to lead efforts in this capacity” she said. “I’m honored to have that opportunity to work with our students and guide them through their academic and professional journeys.”

In much of her work, Figueroa-Ramirez draws upon her own background as a first-generation college student and now a first-generation educator. She came to Sacramento State to study government, with a goal of working in policy. When one of her classmates suggested teaching, she couldn’t help but laugh.

“I said, ‘Me a teacher? You’re funny. No absolutely not,’ ” she said. “In retrospect, I think that was my reaction because I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to expose my insecurities in that setting, which were very obvious.

“I didn’t feel I had what it took to be a teacher. Growing up, I didn’t see teachers who represented my background, experiences and worldview.”

But others, including her father, continued to encourage her, as did a prominent staffer at the state Capitol, where she was a legislative intern, working on matters that included education bills. She started visiting schools and substitute teaching and eventually realized she was enjoying herself. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005, she returned to Sacramento State for her credential and worked as a high school social science and history teacher. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree in bilingual and multicultural education.

Sacramento State was a welcoming community. Figueroa-Ramirez said her classes, faculty and fellow students helped validate, for the first time, experiences she had growing up as a Latina, including experiences such as microaggression and being ostracized.

The College of Education, with its emphasis on social justice, also challenged her to think differently about students. She learned to not define them by their deficits – for example, a “problem child” who inevitably will disrupt class – but instead by their potential.

“We work with students with a restorative lens,” she said. “Instead of judging students or treating them with a deficit way of thinking, we were trained to do the opposite, to see the best in students and how we may be agents of change in the classroom.”

In 2016, Figueroa-Ramirez returned to the University as an employee, and has spent much of the past three-plus years working to help ensure the next generation of teachers is more diverse and culturally competent.

Although it’s too soon to tell how well those efforts are paying off, some anecdotal evidence encourages her. The number of students graduating with a bilingual authorization has increased, and one education faculty member told her that he had never before seen as many Spanish-speaking students. In addition to Spanish-speakers, Figueroa-Ramirez also is working to increase the number of teaching candidates who earn a bilingual authorization in Hmong, a major need in California.

“To give voice to the voiceless, we need to have teachers who will work toward social justice, access and equity,” she said. “Research shows and points to the fact that students are more successful when they see themselves in their teachers. It’s such a powerful profession that provides access to the masses – time every day with students.”

Thinking (and painting) outside the box

Sarah Billingsley with her painted SN&R newsstand
Sarah Billingsley shows off the Sacramento News & Review “art rack” she painted in 2007. (Jenni Murphy)

A colorful, floral-painted newspaper box is one of the first things to welcome students to campus near the bus stop on State University Drive. And while thousands walk past the box every day, few know the story behind it.

In 2007, as city officials discussed removing oft-vandalized sidewalk news boxes altogether, the Sacramento News & Review launched the SN&R Newsstand Art Project. Under the banner of “making news beautiful,” the local paper tapped dozens of artists to turn newsstands into “art racks” with the dual purpose of dissuading vandals and persuading the city to keep newsstands on Sacramento sidewalks.

One of the very first painters? Sacramento State’s own Sarah Billingsley (’13, M.A. Communications), a proud alumna and current marketing communications director for the College of Continuing Education. She worked at SN&R with husband, Michael, who conceived and launched the project, before they both came to Sacramento State, where they earned their master’s degrees.

“I took a big leap of faith and left my old career and came back to college,” Billingsley says, “and there was my art box that I drove by every day.”

For the design, Billingsley found inspiration in a poem about spring written by her father, who had passed away earlier that year. Her painting brought to life her father’s words, some of which were included in SN&R’s advertisement for the project:

“There is awareness of life now, and purpose. In the arms of Spring is perfection and joy.”

Billingsley’s box art helped kick off a project that would eventually lead to a wave of new public artworks to transform boring into beautiful. (The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s Capitol Box Art Project is one of the most recent examples.) And while Billingsley may not self-identify as an artist, her art has endured for nearly a decade, a legacy that goes far beyond the campus.