Excellence in Action
Margarita Luna ’00, M.P.H. ’03, M.S.W. ’03
Interviewed by Monique Beals • January 22, 2020
To start, will you please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role?
I graduated with an undergraduate degree from UCLA, and I continued on and received two Master’s degrees from UCLA as well, in Public Health and Social Work. I didn’t have any real work experience other than internships that I had in my time at UCLA, so I took on a fellowship. It was the Vivian Weinstein Keck Fellowship, and it was focused on child advocacy. I really loved that experience, because it was a great transition and bridge to the working world having been in education for such a long time.
I was taking classes in child advocacy and learning about issues that were most important to children and their families, but I was also working in a public interest law firm implementing what I was learning which was great. After the fellowship, I was offered a position as a social worker at the public interest law firm, and I worked there for several years. I was doing educational advocacy for children and their families and also working on legal guardianship, immigration, and a host of other issues that were impacting young people, so I was able to help families during that time.
I reached a point in my career where I felt as though I had learned everything I could from that organization. A couple of mentors of mine suggested that I join philanthropy, and I wasn’t really excited about the idea honestly in the beginning, because I hadn’t had good experiences with folks from philanthropy at the nonprofit where I worked. They really convinced me that I could make and be the difference, so I took a leap joining the California Endowment as a Program Associate. Primarily, my role required me to do a lot of research and writing while supporting program officers in their funding recommendations. I really enjoyed that experience and felt I was learning a lot and also implementing and using a lot of skills I had learned at UCLA.
Soon after, I was offered a promotion about a year later to become a program officer and essentially have been doing that work since that time. I’ve been at the Endowment now for 12 years.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I was really interested in doing something upstream and prevention-oriented. Originally, when I first went to UCLA, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I took a couple of internships and realized it really wasn’t what I thought it would be. I learned about public health from a mentor through a mentorship program offered at UCLA and realized there were so many other things I could do in the health field. Once I started thinking about going into public health, I also realized that I had a lot of interest in social work as well. When I went to UCLA as a graduate student, I decided to do a concurrent degree, and there wasn’t one offered at the time, but I helped develop the concurrent degree program that is currently in place.
I was really interested in advocacy and prevention-based work, but I never imagined that it would be in philanthropy. It was just such an exclusive field and very difficult to break into. I feel my career ultimately chose me rather than me choosing it, but it has been such a great ride, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
It helped in so many ways. I came from a high school that I thought prepared me for what I was going to face at UCLA, and I was really surprised when I got there. I graduated at the top of my class and had a lot of confidence when I arrived as an undergrad, but then I realized everyone there is super smart too. It was very challenging, and what UCLA taught me was that I had the grit needed for a competitive space like that. I entered as a Physiological Sciences major and it was intense.
I loved that at UCLA you can change your mind, and it is encouraged for you to explore and think about what you want to do and not feel pigeon-holed into what you dreamed as a little kid. Instead, you find all these opportunities you never dreamed of before, and that was my experience at UCLA. It was a really great opportunity to try new things. Every internship I took taught me what I didn’t want to do which is just as valuable. It helped me narrow down the types of populations that I wanted to work in, the kinds of issues I wanted to work on, and the setting I wanted to be in. There were so many opportunities to learn about the interests and passions you have and really to learn more about yourself. It was a very character-building experience.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
If you’re working in LA, you are bound to run into people that went to UCLA or USC. The majority of people I work with went to UCLA for graduate school or undergrad, or they went across town. The UCLA alumni network is everywhere. Not only have I tapped into the formal network at UCLA especially through the graduate programs which are closely related to my career, but also other networks that are everywhere. There are people in my workplace who went to UCLA. So many of us were there at different times, but it is so easy to build a working relationship with people when you share that kind of experience.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
My greatest career challenge came early when I began thinking about transitioning from the public interest law firm that I was working for and was starting to look at taking the next step in my career. I had several offers at the time. The California Endowment was one, and I also had offers in a research position at UCLA and working for one of my internship organizations. I had a hard time deciding which trajectory to take. It was really difficult to discern, and I decided I needed to go where I was most excited about the work and where my values felt aligned rather than where the money was.
I came from a low-income background, and I went to college and graduate school, because I wanted to have more career options, but I also wanted to have a stable income. I wanted to support my family and earn money, so it was difficult in the beginning to decide what to do. It took everything to really decide that I needed to follow my passion and what interested me more than the money. What I’ve learned is that if you follow your interests and passions, you will excel, and the money will come. If you take a job for the money, it might not interest you or make you grow as much as something else. While my passion didn’t pay well in the beginning, it wound up earning me much more in the end than the other options would have.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
I would suggest that it is not necessarily who you know, but who knows you. When you are in school that is about building connections and going to office hours to ensure that professors know you and can write you a letter of recommendation, but as you move forward, they can help you in those discerning times for your career as mentors. Build those relationships as much as possible, because your next opportunity could be just two people away. Maybe you know someone who knows someone, so keep those relationships alive as you go out in your career. Your professors or adjunct professors are probably very well connected and tend to know folks in the field. Be genuine and authentic in those relationships you build, and they will keep an eye out for you.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
I have taught a couple of classes as an adjunct professor at UCLA which I love. I’m very involved in the mentorship program as well because I want to be the person I needed when I was in undergrad or graduate school. I had a few people who helped me get to where I am today, and so I credit those relationships so much with how much I’ve grown and been able to accomplish in my career. Being able to give back in some way is just something that I love to do.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
There are several reasons why I am proud to be a Bruin. Both of my sisters graduated from UCLA, so it was sort of a legacy thing for me. To be a Bruin was something that I was so excited to become. My sister went to UCLA when I was 12 years old, so it was a formative time in my life and I knew the campus inside and out by the time I got there. I was proud to be able to say I went there too, like my sisters.
Also, it is the place where I learned so much about myself in an important time of my life. Becoming independent, first as an undergrad, and then eventually digging deep and learning about who I wanted to be and how to contribute to the world in graduate school as well. The connections I have from UCLA are so amazing, including meeting my amazing husband of 15 years in the dorms my first year. I’m just proud to be a Bruin.
And finally, what’s next?
That is a very good question. Philanthropy has become a place where there is so much power and privilege to be able to work in this field, and it is not lost on me at all as someone who comes from such little power and privilege. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore different avenues and ways that philanthropy can continue to transform, evolve and give back, especially these days when communities need so much support. I think that as someone who came from those communities we seek to serve, I can really help pave the way for philanthropy to do good in advancing equity in underserved communities. I plan to continue to stay in philanthropy, but I also had the privilege of becoming a professional life coach in the past several years. That has been a budding interest of mine, so I’m not sure if maybe in the future I will do that full time, but it has been a very fulfilling part of my career so far.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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