Using Your Education to Make a Difference

Alumni Nathaniel Tan and Ciarra Jones (on screen)

What does your future hold? Are you bound for success? These may seem like the opening lines of a kitschy psychic, but they are also questions many students ponder during their undergraduate years. Students with a strong social conscience may be drawn to majors such as Ethnic Studies, but wonder how their studies will translate into post-college careers. On a recent Tuesday evening, alumni from UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies talked with Berkeley Connect students about their current lives, post-graduation. Their stories made clear that a social justice mindset doesn’t have to end when you get your diploma—each of these former Cal students is still leading a values-driven life.

The featured speakers were Ciarra Jones, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, and Nathaniel Tan, a community organizer focused on criminal justice issues.

Ms. Jones, the Harvard graduate student, is passionate about intersectionality and social justice. In her early life, she was internally conflicted while discovering her queer identity. Raised as a practicing Christian, it was difficult to reconcile her religion and sexuality. However, discovering their intersections and qualities they had in common (like tenacity, self-love, and resilience) helped her integrate these two fundamental aspects of herself. At UC Berkeley, Ms. Jones switched majors from Psychology to American Studies because she felt questions regarding mental health and community interests were going unanswered within the psychology program. It was a difficult decision to make, but she received helpful advice from her brother, who said, “The best things I’ve done are the things I was afraid of doing.” Jones’s current theological studies emphasize social justice, and she is appreciative of her time at UC Berkeley and the preparation it gave her. Additionally, she’s a successful writer on Medium, writing articles about her identity and the lack of intersectionality within academia.

Nate Tan is a lecturer and community organizer who does influential work with incarcerated persons. He’s currently working on a case involving a Cambodian refugee, Borey ‘PJ’ Ai, who spent 29 years in prison. Ai was set free largely due to the work of activists like Tan. Mr. Tan publicized the phrase #BringPJHome, reaching international audiences and hastening his release. However, post-release, Ai was immediately arrested by ICE and is set to be deported to Cambodia, even though he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Currently, Tan is working to ensure that Ai can stay in America and be free. Mr. Tan spoke on the effectiveness of publicity on such cases, using the hashtag #KeepPJHome as an example of how social media and grassroots campaigns can have far reach.

These alumni illustrate just a few of the many opportunities that await students post-graduation. There are many ways to incorporate social justice-oriented education into the professional world. Participating in “real life” doesn’t mean graduates have to set aside their values of social justice or let them fade into the background — there are many work opportunities that actively involve such values and let one make a difference. No matter what you do post-graduation, it’s always possible to use your education to make a great impact in the world.


Written by Melody Niv, Berkeley Connect blogger