Cal State L.A. archeology student turns childhood isolation into academic success, recognition and a Hearst Scholarship
Los Angeles, CA—Born in Las Vegas to hardworking Mexican-American immigrant parents, as a child Toni Gonzalez’s lack of English skills made her feel secluded and prevented her from fitting in at school. Fortunately, her isolation sparked in her a passion for literature and learning about the world, both above and below ground.
Gonzalez now channels that passion as an archeology graduate student at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). To help fund her studies, she has been honored with the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement and its $3,000 prize. The scholarship is awarded by the CSU Board of Trustees to one student honoree from each of the 23 CSU campuses for academic excellence and commitment to education.
“Being awarded the William Randolph Hearst Scholarship gives me the visibility and recognition that will be critical for me to be taken seriously by doctoral programs,” said Gonzalez. “The funding will permit me to return to Belize for a second season of field research. I am confident that since returning from Belize my thesis will make an important contribution to the field and bring pride to my alma mater and my family.”
Gonzalez’s parents struggled financially while she was growing up, each working more than 40 hours a week, nearly seven days a week. As the only girl of three children, she socially retreated into herself and became “the quiet one.”
Unfortunately, as they grew, one of Gonzalez’s brothers “was lost to gangs” and spent time in prison. Fearing her brother’s poor judgment would influence the other children, her parents pushed and encouraged her to seek a more rewarding path. At 15, she started her first job while managing to earn good grades in school.
“After graduation, I was determined to go to college. I could have gone to UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), but I knew I ultimately wanted to experience something different, even if I would have to do it on my own,” she said. “In search of opportunity, I left home for Los Angeles. Having always worked, I didn’t think it unusual to work two jobs to support myself while in college.”
Gonzalez first enrolled in Pasadena City College part-time. Due to her busy work schedule, it took six years before she was ready to transfer. She chose to attend CSULA as an undergraduate in anthropology.
During her studies at CSULA, Gonzalez has received numerous fellowships, invitations to work on prestigious projects, and several awards.
“At Cal State L.A., I found the opportunities that I was searching for when I left home. During the fall of 2009, I worked as a crewmember on [anthropology Professor] Helen Wells’ archaeological field project at China Lake in the Mojave Desert,” she said. “My performance earned me a position as crew chief in the fall of 2010 and as staff member in 2011 in the Great Basin [China Lake] area, where I led a team of students through excavations.”
Gonzalez also conducted research during the Great Basin field season, where she acquired techniques for recording rock art that led to an experimental archaeology project replicating pigments used for prehistoric pictographs.
The research resulted in her first professional presentation, the coauthored paper, Pigment and Pictographs: An Experiment in the Mojave Desert. Gonzalez presented the paper at the 32nd Great Basin Anthropological Conference in Layton, Utah in October 2010.
That year, Gonzalez was also one of a few undergraduates selected for a project directed by CSULA anthropology Professor RenÃ© Vellanoweth on San Nicolas Island off the California coast. The experience enabled her to develop techniques that greatly differed from those used in desert archaeology, such as analyzing material remains and ecofacts—natural materials that have been used by humans, such as the remains of plants or animals.
Despite her heavy workload, Gonzalez maintained a 3.7 GPA and graduated cum laude with her Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology in June 2011. She is now working on her master’s degree and conducting research in Mesoamerica, particularly in Maya culture and regions with renowned CSULA professors James Brady and Manuel Aguilar.
To support her research, Gonzalez was awarded the
Cotsen Fellowship in Archaeology. She has worked on the Belize Archaeological Project, studying the structure at a newly-identified Late Classic Period site called Hun Tun. Her findings were presented in a co-authored paper at the 2011 Annual Conference for the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies in Los Angeles.
“These presentations at conferences reflect a serious, professional attitude that I developed at Cal State L.A.,” said Gonzalez. “Closer to home, I helped conduct ethnographic research on the fusion of American catering trucks with Mexican street vendors that spawned the loncheras, or taco trucks, in Los Angeles.”
She presented her catering truck research in a co-authored paper, Being Mexican One Taco at a Time: Evaluating Mexican Identity through Loncheras in Los Angeles, at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Montreal.
Gonzalez’s work in Belize also earned her another trip in spring 2012 to direct the excavation of several chultuns at the site of K’akabish, Belize.
Along with leading to bigger and better archeological projects, research and published works, at CSULA her work earned Gonzalez a place on the dean’s list for academic achievement in both 2010 and 2011. She received the Golden Eagle Award for Excellence in 2012, and she was awarded a Graduate Equity Fellowship.
“An M.A., which once seemed like a distant dream, is now squarely within my grasp and my long-term goal of entering a Ph.D. program is taking tangible form,” she said. “The dreams my parents had for me were my motivation during my childhood. Those have been met but the initial dreams I had for myself have continued to develop.”
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