Katherine Maldonado 

Class of 2012

For Katherine Maldonado, school never felt important. Growing up, her parents expressed the importance of education, but the path never felt clear. When she began attending Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy, something changed. Surrounded by academic mentors, the class of 2012 alumna now had supportive relationships with teachers who were focused on her academic and personal growth. “They were willing to help me navigate high school as a teen mom. They gave me sort of that first push, that belief in potential,” said Maldonado. 

Today, Maldonado is a strong proponent of education and an agent for change. In 2019 she earned a $72,000 Ford Foundation Fellowship award, which has allowed her to work towards her doctorate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Ánimo Watts alumna, has used her fellowship funding to research how race, gender, and class statuses relate to violence in the life trajectories of former gang-involved mothers.

From South LA to UCLA

Maldonado grew up in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, where she recalls being exposed to poverty and violence. “I ended up going into the streets, to look for a community that understood me,” Maldonado said. Despite many neighborhood disincentives, her parents prioritized education. “They didn’t go to school—my dad got to the third grade—but they always instilled in me to ‘go to school. That’s your way out.’” 

Attracted by its small class sizes and commitment to high-quality education, Maldonado’s mother enrolled her daughter into Ánimo Watts. “They gave me that academic push amidst all those challenges,” Maldonado said. Her teachers helped her see the importance of education, demonstrated the power of curiosity, and instilled values necessary for success. These same teachers helped Maldonado envision her life after high school and encouraged her to apply to competitive colleges. 

An influential figure in her high school career was then Ánimo Watts Principal, Sue Jean Hong. “She was a major person that I would go to and she would be there to support me,” Maldonado said. “Ms. Hong really gave me that support throughout high school and a lot of my peers as well.” 

After graduating from Ánimo Watts, Maldonado accepted an offer to attend the University of California, Los Angeles. Hoping to gain a deeper understanding of her heritage and community, she majored in Chicano Studies. As a first-generation college student and mother, Maldonado faced unique challenges in her pursuit of a college degree. “It was another difficult and transformative time because I was trying to learn how to be a college student with a different background, with different responsibilities,” Maldonado admitted. These challenges never deterred her, instead they strengthened her resolve. To succeed, she utilized the skills she developed in high school; she advocated for her needs and sought out resources and opportunities on campus. 

After taking her first sociology class Maldonado was instantly hooked. She began to explore all the ways this area of study could help her impact the lives of others. Her hard work and dedication landed Maldonado a spot on UCLA’s McNair Research Scholars program, where she dove into sociological research. “Sociology gave me the flexibility to develop a theoretical understanding of what happens around us,” Maldonado said.

Committed to researching communities like her own, Maldonado applied and was accepted into a PhD program at University of California, Santa Barabra. There Maldonado studies socio-legal consequences and impacts on families from marginalized communities. “I love to be able to help community and family members navigate the legal system in different ways,” she said.

An Even Brighter Future

It’s not surprising that Maldonado has persevered and achieved every goal she’s set. Even as a teenager she possessed remarkable strength and determination. “Katherine was a force to be reckoned with— it was very clear that she was a leader,” Hong said. She’s proud of what Maldonado has accomplished and is excited to see what the future has in store for her former student. “Katherine has a lot to say and she wants to impact human beings.” 

Maldonado already has a vision for how she’ll use her PhD to amplify her impact. “My plan is to become a professor at a research university, continue doing the research, getting grants and supporting my community materially however I can,” Maldonado said. She hopes her research will inform public policy and help protect the next generation of children from falling into cycles of gang involvement and trails of violence. 

Maldonado is proud of her academic and professional accomplishments, but the most rewarding experience in her life’s journey has been paving a path to her children’s future. “There is a community motivation that comes behind me. I think about my ancestors and I think about my family,” Maldonado said. “Now I am able to put my kids onto different pathways and show them a new direction.”