In August of 1963 Rosina Becerra, a somewhat restless computer programmer at an aerospace corporation in Sunnyvale, drove a friend to San Jose to take the qualifying exam for the Peace Corps. That ride proved to be a detour that changed the direction of Becerra's life.
Her friend never did join. But within the month Becerra found herself agreeing to go to Brazil for two years as a Peace Corps community worker.
Looking back, Becerra says she would love to be able to say that she did it for God and country, but the true catalyst was the realization that in the two years since graduation from San Diego State University with a degree in mathematics, she had acquired a suspiciously spotty employment record and, she had reasoned, "What better way to leave a job. . . . "
The experience proved to be a "major mark" in her life, "one of the roughest, emotionally most difficult and most joyful experiences I've had"--and one that led her to abandon math as a career and go into social work.
Last July, Becerra was named associate dean of the School of Social Welfare at UCLA, which makes her the highest-placed Latina in the university's administration.
A Late Bloomer
Becerra was, perhaps, a classic late bloomer. A native San Diegan whose grandparents were born in Mexico, she graduated from San Diego's Hoover High in 1957 and enrolled at UC Berkeley with a minimum of enthusiasm. "The truth is," she said, "I really didn't want to go to school in the first place. In our family, nobody had ever graduated from high school before, much less college."
After two years at Berkeley, family and financial considerations led her to return home. She dropped out of school for a semester and took a job in Marston's department store.
It was an eye-opener. Said Becerra, "I remember looking around and thinking, 'In 20 years, I will have graduated to buyer in the handkerchief department.' "
The next semester she enrolled at San Diego State, working part time at Marston's en route to a degree in math. And that, she thought, would be it as far as education went--"In those days we thought of a bachelor's degree as terminal." So in 1961, at the age of 21, she set off for San Francisco "with my car, 15 bucks in my pocket and my great degree."
Took First Job Offered
But the "wonderful job in mathematics" she had envisioned did not materialize. So, to pay the rent, she took the first job offered, selling display advertising for the San Francisco Examiner. She stayed a year before deciding to return to San Diego State and get an advanced degree in math.
That meant finding part-time work and she was hired by San Diego County for the night shift--10 p.m. to 6 a.m.--at Juvenile Hall. Becerra liked the work so well that she quit school and took a full-time job in the Department of Corrections.
But she found she was not entirely comfortable with that decision. After all, she reasoned, she did have a degree in math. Scanning the "help wanted" columns in a newspaper, she sent out 30 letters, which netted 10 responses. Becerra accepted an offer from United Technology Corp. in Sunnyvale.
"It was the beginning of computer programming," she said. "Those were the days when you had to be a mathematician to be a programmer." She was assigned to work with a group of engineers who were testing parts for space capsules in the infancy of America's manned space flights. It was interesting, yet. . . .
Then, on that August day in San Jose, Becerra learned she would have to wait three hours for her friend to take the Peace Corps exam. When she protested that it was impossible, the man at the door said, "Why don't you come in and take the test?"
With no serious thought of signing up, she wrote on her application that her preference would be to go to Thailand to teach math. She figured it would be a totally different cultural experience.
"Three weeks later," Becerra recalled, "I got a telegram--'You have been selected as a Peace Corps volunteer in community development in Brazil. Please respond within three days.' "
It was in November of 1963, as her group was preparing to leave for Brazil, that President Kennedy was assassinated. The Peace Corps had been Kennedy's program and Becerra remembers "the feeling one had about the mission, how much more poignant it became, to know you were the last of 'Kennedy's Kiddies,' as we called ourselves. It was a very patriotic time."
Living alone in a town 200 miles from Rio de Janeiro, working with the Brazilians to set up a health clinic and school lunch programs, Becerra found, "I learned a lot about me, what I could do." And about what she wanted, really wanted, to do.
But pragmatism took precedence when Becerra returned to San Diego in 1965, so she took a position as a mathematician at the Naval Electronics Laboratory on Point Loma (now the Naval Ocean Systems Center). In her free time, she plunged into Cesar Chavez's new movement, organizing food collections for striking farm workers.