In less than three months, Jesse Bernal will officially come into the role of UC student regent. Although Bernal’s voice will be the only one with the power to vote amongst thousands of students from 10 campuses, his voice was first heard far from earshot of any of the UC schools.
Born out of state, Bernal’s hometown, Placedo, TX was comprised of just 800 or so individuals, or about 1-20th of the amount of undergraduates in Bernal’s current university UC Santa Barbara.
After graduating from Bloomington High School in a class of about 50 students, Bernal went to Southwestern University, just north of Austin, TX. His grades may have been up to snuff, but the burden was initially too big to bear, so Bernal decided to drop out and move back home. Yet, Bernal was defying the odds simply by attending; he was one of the only students from his high school that actually decided to attend college.
Nonetheless, Bernal needed to get away.
“My mentality was that if I went to California I would go to a school there and I wouldn’t be able to afford a plane ticket back,” Bernal said.
Although Bernal eventually had enough money to purchase a return ticket to Placedo, he never moved back. Instead, he has been in California for nine years.
Attending Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Bernal double-majored in both political science and religion studies. He earned impressive enough grades to land him two responsibilities. The first was a position in a P.h.D. political science program at UCSB. The second, the far less appealing price tag that went with the program.
Working full time in addition to seeking a P.hD. degree, Bernal soon discovered that earning his political science Ph.D. was simply not practical, as he had to help his mother support his two brothers and nephew.
Instead of being a graduate school drop out, though, Bernal picked himself up and switched his Ph.D. track to education with an emphasis in cultural perspectives. Almost immediately, Bernal realized that he had hardly changed his path at all.
“It wasn’t until I really got into the program that I realized that everything I’d ever done was always focused around educational issues,” Bernal said.
Bernal first began tutoring students in high school before transitioning into working as a college mentor. Once Bernal’s path to working in education was clear, Bernal changed his position from hovering above ground to taking full flight.
Bernal made his way into leadership positions in two prestigious groups. In the systemwide UC Students Association (UCSA), Bernal earned the titles of University Affairs Chair and Executive Board Member. Likewise, Bernal’s role as external vice president for Statewide Affairs of the UCSB Graduate Students Association (GSA) kept him busy on his home campus.
Although Bernal’s GSA work is far from anything to scoff at, the UCSA has allowed Bernal to be regularly involved in UC Regent affairs for the last three years.
“He was very involved in the work [when] my predecessor and I [worked] in this funding task force where we looked at how the university is being funded, what the university is doing with its income and then how we are going to move towards long term planning by funding it appropriately,” said D’Artagnan Scorza, the incumbent student regent.
According to Scorza, while Bernal is a capable leader given his character alone, his experience gives him an extra edge.
“Jesse is not only a quick learner, but he’s well informed and I think he has sufficient preparation … a lot of that preparation has been in the work he’s done in student government and in UCSA,” Scorza said.
Despite Bernal’s track record, he remains humble. Amber Gonzalez, the President of the GSA at UCSB, who worked with Bernal in his role on her team, commented about Bernal’s personable attitude.
“He is very much an active listener, so he really listens to everything that you have to say. He doesn’t interrupt you. When you’re speaking to Jesse, you’re speaking to Jesse, it is like you’re the only person in the room,” Gonzalez said.
According to Jess Bravin, who served as the UC student regent from 1996 to 1997, communication is key and the position of student regent can be a lonely one. As Bravin went on to state most UC Regents come from wealthy backgrounds and high public office positions. Despite his role in student government, Bernal is not to the level of the UC Regents in either of these two fields.
“It’s sort of an unusual relationship you have with the rest of the board because all the other members of the board tend to be quite advanced in their careers and their age … these are all people who have a very different life experience,” Bravin said.
Yet according to both Bravin and Benjamin Allen, the UC student regent from 2007-08, as long as the student regent is active and outgoing, other regents will hardly ignore them.
“I found that most of the regents were at least open to listening even if … you didn’t necessarily change their mind,” Allen said.
Although Bernal has issues that are important to him, he does not believe in dedicating himself solely to one issue. Some topics that Bernal is particularly concerned with are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) matters, budget transparency and student fees.
“Being on the board you have to represent multiple perspectives,” Bernal said.
That said, Bernal looks forward to bringing new issues to the UC Regents, as he believes that LGBT issues should not fall to the wayside of the regents.
“I’m gay, which allows me to bring a new perspective to the board … I’ve worked with the LGBT community on campuses and now systemwide … and I’m hoping to bring that perspective to the board as far as really bringing LGBT issues to the forefront systemwide,” Bernal said.
Yet, beyond what perspectives Bernal is able to bring to the table, he is still a student at heart. As such he has retained the respect of the many students he has work with ranging from doctoral candidates to undergraduates.
Corey Huber, a third-year political science major at UCSB, met Bernal as a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for Rules and Regulations at UCSB while Huber was one of the Associated Students of the University of California Santa Barbara undergraduate representatives.
They worked together to prevent the campus’ substance abuse jurisdiction from expanding to Isla Vista, an unincorporated area near Santa Barbara. Although this issue has been resolved, Huber’s admiration for Bernal has not subsided.
“I think Jesse’s done a tremendous job of being a student regent in regards to understanding that it’s not just about the students, it’s not just about the faculty, it’s not just about the staff, it’s also about what’s best for the University of California as a whole and for understanding what’s best for the state,” Huber said.