Nuvia Garcia was only 13 years old when a close friend committed suicide. A young life tragically ended. Garcia said her friend got involved with drugs, criminal activity and then took his own life. She said her own struggles almost got the best of her, too. 

“I was very affected, I even considered taking my own life because of how bad I felt,” Garcia said. “I was very mad at the world for what had happened, and mad at myself because I felt like I didn’t make a difference. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me here, like everyone was better off without me.” 

She said she couldn’t understand why her friend was gone. She had many questions with no answers and gradually fell into depression. Garcia’s mother noticed a change in Garcia and sought help. 

A year in counseling sparked Garcia’s interest in the field, as well as in law enforcement, so she decided to pursue a degree in criminology at Fresno State. It took a while, but she soon was thriving at the University. In fact, Garcia’s perseverance and dedication earned her Fresno State’s top academic honor for the class of 2021. She was selected as the President’s Medalist, the University’s top honor for an undergraduate student.

A rocky start

Garcia’s Fresno State experience got off to a rocky start. She realized being away from home was a high hurdle. As a first-generation student and the oldest of four from a tight-knit family in Turlock, moving away from her family to pursue her education was difficult, especially during a period of grief. 

“Being alone was a challenge. Everyone I met in the dorms already had friends from their hometown or made friends quickly,” Garcia said. “It was a challenge to get out of my own little box, so I kept to myself. I wanted to be more involved, but I didn’t know how.”

Garcia found her footing when she received an email from Dr. Jenna Kieckhafer, a legal psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at Fresno State who was looking for student research assistants. With nothing to lose, Garcia applied, interviewed and got a job. The position was an opportunity to network and make friends. She also joined the honors program and was eventually promoted to lab manager with additional responsibilities.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with and mentoring Nuvia for the last two years, and I’m so proud of all that she has accomplished,” Kieckhaefer said. “She’s worked on several different research projects, presented research at conferences and been a manager of my lab, along with being a student in several of my classes. In all of these areas she’s exceeded my expectations, and I’m truly excited to see what she does next.” 

Garcia spent many hours in the lab as a research assistant and lab manager and conducted her own research as part of the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and the College of Social Sciences Honors Program, examining the effect that pre-admonition commentary — statements given to witnesses before a lineup — has on mock jurors. 

She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminology, forensic behavioral science option, and a minor in Spanish with a 3.97 GPA. 

Chosen from a group of nine Undergraduate Deans’ Medalists she was surprised with the President’s Medalist honor during a Zoom call with Interim Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Xuanning Fu on May 11. 

“It’s such an honor. I’m so grateful for the Criminology Department. The faculty has always been very supportive and provided me with so many opportunities. I never expected to be where I am today.”

Garcia wants to earn a master’s degree in clinical counseling and a license as a professional clinical counselor, then a doctorate in clinical psychology. She will continue research after graduation and has been accepted into Fresno State’s criminology master’s program and the Holy Names University dual master’s program in counseling and forensic psychology.

During the pandemic, Garcia moved back to her hometown to reconnect with her family and is grateful for their support.

“Everyone was a part of the story, especially professors, friends, my family. My mom has always taught me to be resilient, strong and to have endurance,” Garcia said. “I’ve always seen her learn different things and see how great of a mom and wife she is. If my mom can do it, I can do it, too.”

Garcia says her loss at a young age was sad and unfortunate. As an adult, she wants to advocate for mental health and the normalcy of therapy, reminding people there is always a safe space to open up.

“Things are going to work out because everything is a learning experience whether good or bad. Reach out to your professors, create a bond and they will open doors to so many opportunities,” she advises others. “You’re always going to end up where you need to be.”