Katherine Perez ’06, B.A. Double Major in Psychology and Spanish – Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
Katherine Perez completed her studies at Chapman in 2006 with a double major in psychology and Spanish and went on to earn her Juris Doctor at UCLA School of Law, with specializations in Critical Race Studies, Law and Philosophy and Public Interest Law and Policy. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has dedicated her life to advocating for people with disabilities on local, national and international levels. Katherine lived and worked with the disability community in Peru from 2008-2010 and co-founded The National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities (CNLD) in the U.S. in 2016. She has been honored by the American Association of People with Disabilities, serves as the disability rights liaison on the Council for Diversity in Educational Pipeline of the American Bar Association, and is a board member of Disability Rights California. Katherine is currently the Director of The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy, and Innovation and teaches Disability Law at Loyola Law School.
Q&A with Katherine Perez
We asked this year’s winners about their experiences at Chapman and what advice they have for current students.
Who was the most influential person for you at Chapman? Why?
Dr. Steven Schandler, the director of the psychology program at the time I was attending. I was his research assistant in his psychophysiological lab. I worked on a few studies including recording the autonomic responses of adult children of people with alcoholism. He had one of those “lie detector” machines you see in crime movies that we used to measure our participants’ physiology. It was pretty exciting to be doing this kind of work as someone just beginning their studies in psychology. I was even able to get co-author credits and present at conferences. My resume was pretty impressive by the time I graduated. Dr. Schandler was also my career advisor. He was supportive when I decided to go the policy route rather than pursue my PhD in psychology, though I’m sure he was hoping I’d become an experimental psychologist. Even though I did not end up in a psychology lab, Dr. Schandler provided me so many opportunities that prepared me for the future professional experiences I was going to have.
If you could go back and experience one moment from your time at Chapman, what would it be? Is there anything that you would do differently?
Caitlin Roberts, the director of alumni relations, was one of the first people I met, when touring Chapman with my parents. She almost instantaneously became my mentor and hired me through work study to do work engaging with alumni. Caitlin is one of those rare human beings who has the ability to light up a room and make anyone feel at ease. She had this brilliant idea to start the Chapman Ambassador program, so students could engage more with alumni, donors, and friends of the university. So, because I was in the right place at the right time, I helped Caitlyn create the Chapman Ambassadors and became the first Chapman Ambassador myself. I remember interviewing my peers to help select the first class of ambassadors with Caitlyn and other faculty and staff. It was the first time I was on that side of the interview table, which was thrilling. After almost twenty years, Caitlyn and I still keep in touch and it’s wonderful to think back when we met!
Another great experience I had at Chapman was studying abroad in Spain. It was exhilarating getting to live in another country for the first time, though I might have done a few things differently. First, I went with a program that didn’t integrate Americans with Spanish students in the classroom, so most of my friends ended up being American and we mostly spoke English in social settings. Second, I lost my grandmother while I was abroad and wasn’t able to be at her funeral. It happened just a few weeks before I was set to return. It hurt incredibly not to be there with my family and get to say goodbye. If I could go back, and have known how events would unfold, I would have changed when I had left abroad, I would. I might have done it the next year as well as extended it to be an entire year rather than just a semester!
What were the most challenging social issues in our country/world that you faced as a young college student? What was your perspective or how did you get involved? Have your opinions on these issues changed or stayed the same? Give an example…
I went to Chapman from 2002 to 2006. My senior year in high school, the events of 9/11 unfolded and troops were sent into Afghanistan. When I started at Chapman, the Bush Administration was deciding whether to invade Iraq. That was a really big moment for all of us. I remember being in the dorm room freshman year with my two roommates (who ended up becoming my best friends), discussing the possibility of starting this war, and crying with them because we knew it meant death. Our generation had not experienced war and we were now at that age where our friends could potentially be drafted. Further, there was a big debate whether the war was justified. I wish I had been one of the students who went on a hunger strike in pitched tents in the middle of campus who vehemently opposed the war. Instead, I feared the rhetoric of weapons of mass destruction. Has my opinion changed on the issue? Oh yeah, absolutely. Compared to my college self, I am a very politically engaged person. I suppose just like many politicians today, including our incoming president, I now know that starting that war was a colossal mistake.
Another big social issue at that time was that undocumented college students started organizing to get the DREAM ACT passed in Congress. One of my first boyfriends was an undocumented student who emigrated from Mexico and was then studying pre-med at UC Irvine. As an aside, we met at the one salsa club in town that allowed eighteen year olds. Those were thrilling days! Well, my then-boyfriend would go to these DREAM meetings, so I would go with him. That is probably the first time I really became politically engaged with a social issue. Has my opinion changed on the DREAM Act? Not exactly. It’s grown more complex. I went on to do work in public policy and advocacy for immigrants’ rights. I now do some work at the intersection of immigration and disability. In my intersectional analysis, I’ve considered how the needs and rights of immigrants with disabilities are not also adequately covered in immigration policy. Sadly, it’s almost about fifteen years later, we have just barely recovered DACA in the courts, but we still have not passed the DREAM Act. Instead, we’ve been fighting some pretty brutal policies and immigrants continue to live in fear.
What do you wish you knew at the time of your graduation (about life, careers, family, best place for tacos, etc.) that you know now? What advice can you give to the students and/or recent graduates of today?
I wish I knew that everything was going to be OK! I was a little fearful about whether I was going on the right path. I applied to graduate schools in psychology and I got in. But during my senior year at Chapman, I interned at a congress woman’s office, and I applied for a fellowship to work on the Hill in DC. It was a competitive fellowship that I somehow got selected for. So, I had to make the life altering decision whether to work in DC or go to graduate school. I remember my family was frustrated with me that I ended up going to DC. But knowing what I know now, those four years that I took off before I went to graduate school, were a great move. I always encourage students who are graduating to consider taking time to work or to travel or to experience other things before they commit themselves to graduate school. Especially if it’s a Ph.D. or a law program. They take a level of maturity, strength and determination to know what you want in life. In the time between undergrad and graduate school, I went and worked on the Hill for a year, I taught English as a second language, and I lived in Peru for two years with the Peace Corps. Those experiences were invaluable.
How did Chapman prepare you for your career? How did your experience prepare you for the real world?
At Chapman, I was given so many opportunities to do things outside the classroom, including experiencing leadership positions. I’m naturally introverted though highly motivated and these experiences taught me what I was capable of. I started the Chapman Ambassador program with Caitlin Roberts, I had a leadership position in Psi Chi psychology honors program, I was a resident advisor, and I was an orientation leader. I interned at a congressional office, and I also had like three different jobs at a time when I was a student. Chapman gave me a lot of opportunities to take initiative, to start things and create things. And that’s the kind of person I have been throughout my career.