Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Funding Peer Noreen Balos

by Shawn Warner, Director of Professional Development
Wednesday, July 27, 2016 3:27 PM

Noreen BalosNoreen Balos has strong ties to the California coast. Her father and grandfather were migrant farm workers in central California, and both Noreen and her father have served in the United States Air Force at different California bases. Last year, Noreen returned to California ​after getting her B.S. and M.B.A. at Arizona State University, and she is now a second-year doctoral student in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education with a research focus in STEM education.

Noreen is also the Graduate Division's new Funding Peer Advisor, a position in which she will help graduate students find on- and off-campus funding opportunities, as well as educating them on the basics of personal finance and financial literacy. We chatted with Noreen about her research, her passion for students, and the importance of family.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

I was matched by my faculty advisors, Diana Arya and Judith Green, to the PIPELINES (Problem-based Initiatives for Powerful Engagement and Learning In Naval Engineering and Science) program because of my experience as a US Air Force meteorologist and as a higher-education professional working with STEM students. PIPELINES specifically creates engineering and science-design experiences for undergraduates, community college veterans, and underrepresented minority students who major in STEM-related subjects and wish to explore a civil career in the Navy. Currently, I am in my first summer of researching the PIPELINES program, and our education research team hopes this ethnographic study will give insight into the factors affecting veterans’ and minority students’ preparation, participation, and academic success in STEM.

Noreen's dad and his wife, Annabelle, visited UCSB for the first time last spring. What do you like most about grad school, and what do you like least?

I don’t like it when I have to dodge cyclists or skateboards when walking around campus. This does not bode well on days I am aimlessly wandering and pleasantly distracted by hummingbirds, butterflies, or trees. And, because almost every event serves pizza, I may no longer have a craving for pizza after graduate school. But what I do like about graduate school is the outlet I have to take my thinking and ideas in many different directions. I could not do this without the diverse backgrounds and minds of the faculty and friends I have met. This academic and intellectual outlet can be liberating and challenging because it has also pushed me personally and emotionally in new ways I wouldn’t have expected.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

My motivation is realizing that I should have probably always been in the education field. It was actually my volunteer work with youth that allowed me to transition from a science, military-based profession into the non-profit sector and eventually higher education. I care about the student experience and that students are not only informed about how to continue school and pursue an advanced degree, but that the way in which information is contextualized and delivered to first-generation or non-traditional populations impacts their understanding, perception, and experience at the university.Noreen with her niece, mom, and sister.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

A couple years ago, I established the JIHL-FIPE STEM scholarship for high-school graduates through the Phoenix Union Foundation for Education. The name of the scholarship is created by the first-name initials of my immediate family (sister Jennifer, niece Isabella, father Honorito, and mother Lourdesita) and my grandparents (Florentina, Isidro, Pillar, Enrique). While I personally am not an immigrant, my history includes an immigrant story of parents making distinct choices – sometimes divergent from familiarity or tradition – to pursue and provide a better future for themselves and loved ones. There are many students ​who want to go to school but ​who struggle to make it a reality, and I hope this named scholarship reflects the success, achievement, and contribution that was warranted by the risk and sacrifice of my loved ones.

Every year, Noreen does the Pat Tillman Run, which raises funds for college scholarships to veterans and spouses of veterans. Any hobbies or pastimes?

I would love to say that I have time for hobbies, but I have not really done well at making time for them lately. Some things I love to do ​and want to pick up again are: photography, collecting basketball cards, and watching poetry slams or open mic. While I’m not as consistent as I want to be at it, meditation and yoga are valuable for me in retaining my focus and calm. Traveling is in my DNA, maybe because we moved around a lot when I was young. ​Coming here to UCSB, I really want to explore the area through biking or cycling.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I taught sex and health education to high school students in Oakland.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I actually spent a lot of time through high school and undergraduate years planning five to ten years out. And there have been so many twists, turns, and surprises that I think my approach right now is to be okay with the unexpected. I have heard many stories of mentors, colleagues, or students explaining their academic or career trajectory and a common theme is decisions were made based on opportunities that just unfolded. I don’t know what is around the corner after the doctorate but I am confident that as long as I focus on doing well now, be authentic in my interactions with people, and be clear about my needs and not neglecting my wants, I trust it will be a future I can be excited about. Whatever or wherever that may be, it ​will undoubtedly center around students.

Noreen (front row, third from left) with classmates of an Alternative Pedagogies course in Utrecht, Netherlands. What do you wish you had known before you started grad school? And what advice would you have for current grad students?

First, I would tell graduate students to be reflective and choose a coping mechanism or stress-relief strategy that works for them. Whether it is a hobby, trying something new, some exercise or personal activity, an outlet for stress that has nothing to do with academics will be very valuable. Also, have an ally or two, a close friend with whom you share a mutual trust and from whom you feel supported on good days and bad days. This seems quite obvious, but for me in particular, I wish I knew that ​the people I normally relied on were ​actually those who did not have ​the experience of graduate school, much less a doctoral program. So the extent to which they ​could relate or empathize was minimal. And while I feel extremely blessed to be loved and supported, there is also a distinct comfort and camaraderie with those who are also orbiting on a doctoral journey.

Noreen is available as a resource to graduate students who would like more information about funding and finances. In addition to offering regular workshops, she is also available for one-on-one advising and by email or phone ​(805-893-8994).