May 17, 2024

Eight Mesa College students who embody equity and excellence

Spring Student Stories Series, in honor of #MesaGivingDay

By Emma Rodriguez

Alexis with President Hands and her children at the 2024 Annual Scholarship Awards

San Diego Mesa College is home to some incredible students. Their stories of resilience, and achievement speak to our school’s commitment to Equity and Excellence for the past 60 years.


Alexis Primo-Hawkins

Alexis Primo-Hawkins is likely a familiar face to most Mesa students, faculty, staff, and community members. Throughout her time on campus, she has served as a Project Assistant in the office of President Ashanti T. Hands, participated in Honors Society, Parent Café, CDAIE (Committee for Diversity Action, Inclusion, and Equity), Diversity Club, the Associated Student Government, and is a Student Parent Fellow with Generation Hope.

Born in Guyana and raised in Barbados, Alexis is a proud first-generation Afro-Latina student-parent. In fact, her favorite memory from Mesa College was attending the 2024 Scholarship Award Ceremony. Alexis’s two children joined her at the event to celebrate her achievements and even accompanied her up to the stage to receive the prestigious President’s Award for Academic Excellence.

“They love to hold mommy's certificates and smile for the photos,” says Alexis. It was, “a great opportunity to expose them to higher education and what it means to be committed then rewarded for hard work!”

She will now graduate with three associate degrees in Black Studies, Social Work, and Psychology. Next semester, she will transfer to San Diego State University to pursue continuing education in both Africana Studies and Urban Studies. At SDSU, she will continue advocating for student-parents as the Pregnant and Parenting Students Initiative Lead with the Women's Resource Center at SDSU.

Oleksandr Sharlai

Oleksandr Sharlai was a budding young scientist in the mid-sized, Western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi when, in February of 2022, Russo-Ukrainian war exploded from the Crimean region to engulf all of Ukraine as the Russian army launched a large-scale invasion of their neighbor. Oleksandr eventually fled his home, leaving his family, friends, and everything else behind. He ended up in San Diego as a refugee, and, last year, came to Mesa College to further his passion of science.

Oleksandr will finish his first year at Mesa this month where he is pursuing dual degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology. Passionate about research and discovery in these fields, he has been mentored at Mesa by Professor Inna Kanevsky, who is also passionate about research. He also joined Psi Beta, a national psychology honor’s society for community college students.

These opportunities and support structures led him to join PSYC 101 as an honors student with Professor Kanevsky in Fall 2023. Together, they embarked on a research project that led them to presenting a poster at the Western Psychological Association Convention in San Francisco alongside fellow Mesa Psi Beta students Douglas Jenks, Tami Patterson, Anastasia Wilson, and Barbara Jarvis.

Oleksandr won second place in the Psi Beta contest, joining Douglas, Tami, Anastasia, and Barbara who took fourth, in an impressive showing by Mesa students at the annual conference of psychology professionals, researchers, and students.

Denisse headshot

Denisse Rodriguez-Lizarraga

Growing up, Denisse Rodriguez-Lizarraga was constantly reminded of the limitations imposed by her undocumented status. The prevailing narrative was one of closed doors and unattainable dreams. However, deep within her burned a fierce determination to defy these expectations and forge her own path. She entered Mesa as a first generation, undocumented student, and has thrived thanks to Mesa’s supportive community and programs.

“Like many Mesa students, I navigated through uncertainty and doubt, unsure of what the future held,” said Denisse who further added, “They call it community college for a reason – because it truly is a place where you find not just education, but also a sense of family and belonging.”

Denisse will now graduate with an AA in Liberal Studies Elementary Education Preparation and transfer to SDSU to finish her degree in Elementary Education with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher.

“If it were up to me, I would never leave Mesa,” she said. “I just love it here.”


Sophia Kaplan

Sophia started at Mesa in Spring 2022. At that time, she felt like her life was a puzzle she couldn’t figure out. As a child, Sophia had had a speech impediment. Even though it no longer affected her speech, this childhood adversity created long-lasting effects. But at Mesa, Sophia blossomed while taking Oral Communications, taught by Professor Scott Plambek, and joined the Speech and Debate Team.

“The instructors at Mesa have a profound way of uplifting students, so they can grow academically, professionally, and personally,” Sophia said.

She will graduate May 24 with an AA in Communication Studies.

Allegra Pompeo headshot

Allegra Pompeo

Have you ever had teachers that make your life better? Allegra Pompeo has.

 “The staff at Mesa College is unlike any other,” explained Allegra about why she chose to attend Mesa College. “Profesora (Hannah) Padilla-Barajas offered to help me when she saw my car die on (Interstate) 805 on my way to school. Professor (Brian) Lesson told our class about available scholarships and offers financial advice at the Stand. And, Profesora (Dora) Schoenberg-Fernandez helped students apply for the Pell Grant so they could afford to study abroad.”

Allegra continued: “These are teachers who genuinely care about their students’ well-being and educational experiences and who know that everyone deserves a quality education regardless of extenuating financial circumstances.”

While at Mesa, Allegra pursued a degree in Spanish. As part of her pursuit, she studied in South America with the Mesa Study Abroad program. Now, Allegra plans to transfer to San Diego State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality.

Anika Goel

Anika Goel headshot

Anika Goel was 16 and still in high school when she began taking classes at Mesa. It was a step that presented challenges both academically and personally, but also opened her eyes to the discipline that she found to be her calling: Physics.

The combination of challenging problems, interactive experiments, and the curiosity all good physicists need was alluring to Anika. Supportive professors helped bring learning to life. She names Professor Michael Crivello’s introductory physics class as one of her favorite classes and professors ever.

“Professor Crivello was funny, engaging, and made learning physics interesting and fun. I loved his class,” she shared.

Later, faced with roadblocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, Anika enrolled in the remote Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program at the University of London. She competed in gymnastics and practiced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She also participated in internships at Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) and Intel.

However, she always planned to finish her AS in Physics at Mesa when in-person classes opened up again. And this year, she will graduate with an AS. in Physics in addition to her recently awarded Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of London. Next, she plans on furthering her education by pursuing graduate-level degrees in Business or Physics.

Sarah Diot

The journey to graduating from Mesa College has been marked by unique challenges for Sarah Diot. In 2014, she stepped away from education. Originally intended to be a temporary pause, the detour extended over a decade. Within that period, she experienced incredible trauma when she suffered a nearly fatal assault. However, she continued to hold her head up and fight for her dreams, beginning studies in Finance at Mesa.

 “The return on investment in education is immeasurable,” she explains. “As a finance major, I've learned that investment isn't just about money, it's about where we place our time, our energy, and our passion. [Education] yields not just financial stability but also personal growth, confidence, and the knowledge that we can face adversity head-on and emerge victorious.”

Sarah will graduate in May with an Associate Degree for Transfer in Business and will transfer to San Diego State University to continue her educational journey.


About #MesaGivingDay#MesaGivingDay honors the accomplishments and hard work of this year’s graduating class and paves the way for the next generation of Olympians by offering the opportunity to give back to San Diego Mesa College. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible! We want #MesaGivingDay to be a day where everyone in San Diego and beyond can honor the work Mesa is doing to empower minds, transform lives, and shape our community.


About Mesa San Diego Mesa College

San Diego Mesa College is a fully accredited, comprehensive college committed to equity and excellence. We honor our diverse community of students, faculty, professional staff, and administrators who collaborate to foster scholarship, leadership, access, and innovation in an inclusive learning environment. By promoting student learning and achievement that leads to degrees and certificates, transfer, workforce training, and lifelong learning, we empower our students to reach their educational goals and shape their future. Among the largest community colleges in California, Mesa serves approximately 20,000 students per year, 25% of whom are full-time. Mesa offers over 200 associate degree and certificate programs and is one of 15 California community colleges offering a four-year baccalaureate degree. Mesa ranks as one of San Diego’s top transfer institutions, is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI), and a Military Friendly Gold Status School, serving nearly 2,500 active duty, veterans, and their families.


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Tags: Press Release, #students, Scholarships, Giving Day