Labor Studies Commencement Speaker Spotlight: Micaela Aragon

‘Her analysis is sharp, her energy is contagious, her vision is inspiring’

This story is part of our 2024 Labor Studies Graduation Stories series. Micaela Aragon will be one of the graduating student speakers at the upcoming Labor Studies Commencement Celebration on Saturday, June 15.

By Hanan Hashem | June 7, 2024

Micaela Aragon describes their journey to labor studies as a serendipitous one. They came to UCLA as a political science and public affairs double major when they crossed paths with someone who encouraged them to apply for a work-study communications position in the labor studies interdepartmental program. They soon began working at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE), where they have worked for nearly four years.

Just a few weeks of working at the IRLE was enough to encourage Aragon to explore the labor studies major. After searching for courses to enroll in, they found that “the only class that was open was the final class in a capstone series [LBR STD M166B – Research on Immigration Rights, Labor, and Higher Education],” so they decided to take the leap. As a freshman surrounded by a class full of fourth-year students researching immigration rights, labor and higher education, most of whom had been together since the past quarter, they quickly set about acclimating to their new environment. Despite the challenges of the transition, the soon-to-be-graduate expressed that they “absolutely loved it.” By the time their sophomore year came around, their focus had shifted entirely to labor studies, a decision that profoundly impacted the trajectory of their academic career and personal growth.

Aragon was born and raised in Peru, which they note has shaped them “in every way.” They grew up with the concept of collective responsibility and credit that for sustaining their steadfast determination to achieve their goals. “I feel responsible to my community, I feel responsible to my family, and not in a bad way” but “in the best way possible,” they said. One of the main reasons they pursued labor studies was recognizing this concept they grew up with reflected in an academic space. Cultural values they held dear to their heart, such as a sense of communal responsibility and connection, were the same ones being taught to them and their colleagues in labor studies.

When asked about a current labor issue they’re most passionate about, Aragon points to transnational organizing. As an Astin Scholar in UCLA’s Astin Community Engaged Scholars program, which provides students the opportunity to learn about and then conduct community-engaged research, they were able to explore just that. They worked with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) to understand what it means to exist as a worker who is part of a global economy, and how to build solidarity both nationally and internationally. They emphasize that “as people in the United States, kind of in the belly of the beast, we have a lot of power over what goes on abroad and overseas as well.” They highlight how simple it is to avoid supporting fast fashion industries where we know workers are mistreated, yet so many people “feel as though it’s not their responsibility.”

During their time at UCLA, Aragon was able to make exceptionally impactful connections with several esteemed labor studies faculty members. The first professor they met was now IRLE Director, Tobias Higbie. They recall how he introduced them to the concept of collective memory in social justice — a conversation that is “affecting [their] career trajectory today.” Not only do they plan to further explore this in graduate school, but they have also been able to apply the notion of collective memory to their Latin American studies minor and a seminar they taught on Peru’s internal conflict. Higbie himself reflects on the work the student has done with fondness and praises “Micaela’s ability to carefully listen and observe, and then craft a powerful message in her own voice.”

They also particularly appreciate the care and genuinity of Professor Victor Narro and wholeheartedly believe he is “everyone’s favorite professor.” When asked about the student, Narro shared the following sentiment: “As a popular educator, I embrace the Freirean values of a popular leader or dirigente popular, where the mind connects with the heart in a process that grounds itself in humility, interconnectedness, and unconditional love for the community. To me, Mica deeply embodies the principles of a dirigente popular – her analysis is sharp, her energy is contagious, her vision is inspiring, and she has been generous with applying her gifts with her fellow students and immigrant community members in the struggle for equality, dignity and justice.”

After graduation, Aragon plans to dive into research before eventually committing to a Phd program. Their ultimate goal is to be able to do work akin to the work being done in the field of labor studies at UCLA. They especially appreciate labor studies for showing them “spaces in higher education where people are involved, both as professors, researchers and also community leaders.”

Aragon believes students need to hear more about how their personal experiences and identities are invaluable. Those experiences just might “completely inform the work that you do” and “you shouldn’t be afraid to honor them.”

The Labor Studies Commencement Ceremony will take place on Saturday, June 15. UCLA Labor Studies is an interdepartmental major and minor. The major is the first of its kind at the University of California.