Mentors Who Inspire: Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, PhD, Says It’s Important to be Proud of Your Roots

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By Melissa Simon

Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and a mentor for the BUILD PODER program at California State University, Northridge. She studies factors that contribute to the health and academic achievement of underrepresented students during the transition to college. She identifies as a Latina, a first-generation college student, and a daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico.


As a first-generation college student and daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado said she did not grow up with a computer or even internet at home. Instead, she spent her extra hours after school or when she was not working at the library in her hometown of Oxnard, California.

She said she had an innate passion for science and it was during those hours spent in the library that she really developed a desire to study more and delve into the realm of research. 

But it was not until she was taking a developmental psychology course at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) taught by Gabriela Chavira, PhD, that someone truly took notice of her. 

Chavira told the young scientist that she believed she had what it takes to obtain a PhD and invited Vasquez-Salgado to join her research lab. Accepting the invitation was an important step in Vasquez-Salgado’s path toward earning her doctorate in developmental psychology. 

While she has had a lot of great experiences during her biomedical research journey, there has also been a lot of rejection.

“Sometimes in life [when] one door closes, another one opens. And so we just have to know that we... shouldn't give up (and) keep working towards our goals, and eventually the right door at the right time is going to open,” said Vasquez-Salgado, who is now an assistant professor of psychology and a mentor for CSUN’s BUILD PODER program.

For Vasquez-Salgado, Chavira was the person who opened a door for her and taught her that a good mentor is someone who truly sees a student, recognizes their potential, and invites them to join a research lab. 

Sometimes that belief in a young researcher is all it takes to spark something incredible, Vasquez-Salgado said. 


“Sometimes in life [when] one door closes, another one opens. And so we just have to know that we... shouldn't give up (and) keep working towards our goals, and eventually the right door at the right time is going to open.”

— Yolanda Vasquez-Salgado


Her inspiration for being a mentor comes from knowing that she is training the next generation of underrepresented scholars who are going to have their own labs and go on to train their own mentees and students, she said.

“For me, it's just like this dream to train as many students as I can, so I can help increase the pipeline of more underrepresented scholars in higher education and faculty positions, engaging in science and loving it as much as I do,” she said.

Working with underrepresented scholars is close to Vasquez-Salgado’s heart as she herself grew up without a lot of access to resources. She reflected on all of the sacrifices and support from her family that helped her get where she is today.   

When her grandparents immigrated to the United States, they did not have a lot of resources or  college educations, but they were resilient and made their life here, Vasquez-Salgado said. Her family’s legacy and tenacity for upward mobility is what gives her strength to overcome any obstacles. 

“I'm very proud of where I come from and that's also something that I try to teach my own students,” Vasquez-Salgado said, adding that she aims to encourage students to recognize and discuss the strengths they bring with them from their families and communities. 

While being able to train the next generation of biomedical researchers is perhaps the most rewarding part of being a mentor, it can also be difficult to say goodbye to those students. 

“The fact you get to see how much they develop and to see that spark in their eyes when they’re engaging in science . . . it’s those little moments of growth that are the most rewarding,” she said.

When asked what advice she would give to her mentees and the STEM community, Vasquez-Salgado said it would be that “if you aren’t being changed by what you know then change what you know.”

“You’re engaging in some aspects of science and it’s exciting but . . . [know that] there are so many things that you can uncover, so many mysteries and unknowns. So, just get out there and do it.”


The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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