Arlyn Moreno Luna is a fourth-year doctoral candiate at UC Berkeley's School of Education and a participant in the Data Science + Social Justice Workshop. (Photo/ Arlyn Moreno Luna)

Arlyn Moreno Luna and her family immigrated from Mexico to Oregon when she was 13 years old. Learning a new educational system and English with little support from her high school, she relied on her sister and friends to find her own way to college and beyond. Her experience fueled her to study access to higher education and equity issues related to first-generation, historically underrepresented and Latinx students. Today, as a fourth-year doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Education, she examines topics like how a community college’s location impacts the attainment of associate degrees. 

Moreno Luna participated in the Data Science + Social Justice Workshop, a summer introductory data science program run by Berkeley’s D-Lab and Graduate Division. In this Q+A, she discusses her journey, why she’s interested in data science and how this field has expanded the possibilities of her higher education research. 

This content has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are you studying in higher education? Why were you drawn to it?

A: To answer the question, I can go back a little bit. I was born and raised in Mexico. I came to the U.S. when I was 13 years old. I started as an English learner when I was in high school. Then I was pretty much navigating the higher education route on my own. Luckily, I had my sister. My sister is a year and a half older than me, but because the U.S. educational system is not set up for immigrant students to come in with different knowledge levels, we were both placed in the same route. We were leaning on each other. Nobody ever said, “Hey, what are your plans for college?” or “These are the different courses you should take in order to be a successful applicant or be ready for college.” I started the higher education path at a local community college in Oregon. I was able to live at home and study. 

As transfer students [going from community college to a university], we didn't have a lot of resources available. Another friend who transferred a year before us explained the different resources and how to calculate which credits transferred. One of my peers was transferring with us. She was the one that told us, “Hey, since we're all transferring to Oregon State [University], we should apply to the Honors College.” Back then I didn't know you could apply for a college within the university. [I learned that] through the social capital – social networks – that I had. My sister, my friend and I were admitted to the honors college. That's where we received more support.

Also, as a transfer student when you come to a new university, you don't know the resources or online platforms that the university uses compared to your community college. I was mostly relying on other peers to navigate the process. I also started getting involved in different student organizations. I could see the benefit of these student organizations, specifically serving low-income, first-generation students of color. I could tell there was a big need for these kinds of resources. I then received my bachelor's degree from Oregon State, followed by a  master's program [for public policy]. I always wanted to do a Ph.D., but I didn't know in what field or how to do it. 

After my master’s program, I started working at Arizona State University (ASU) as a program manager for the Diversity and Inclusion Science Initiative. The work that I did at ASU helped me see that I wanted to do a Ph.D. in education, and more specifically, that I wanted to focus on studies that looked at access and equity within higher ed. 

Now I study community colleges. How does the location of a community college affect or impact the associate on degree attainment? That was one of my studies that I conducted. Right now, I'm developing my own instrument that measures how students are adjusting to the university – whether students feel alienated or they belong on campus. This semester, I hope to do focus groups and interviews with students on how they navigated their transition into UC Berkeley. 

The experiences that I have gone through have inspired me and committed to giving back to historically underrepresented students in higher ed.

Q: How did you learn about the D-Lab?

A: It was my first year. Claudia von Vacano was invited to do a quick announcement in our class about the D-Lab [a learning community that helps Berkeley scholars conduct data-intensive social science and humanities research]. For me, it was very inspiring because Claudia came from the same department that I am currently in. Claudia talked about how she started this lab. I'd been working for two different institutions – Oregon State and ASU – and I hadn't heard of any resources like that available for grad students.

I would go to the [consultants in the D-Lab] when I had questions. When it came time to take causal inference – because you had to use R in order to do your homework and projects, and I didn't know how to use R, since all my statistical classes used Stata – I remembered that the D-Lab offers workshops. So I took the R workshop. I also took their workshop on Stata to refine my skills [and worked with them on a separate project].

Q: When did you identify that data science could be helpful in your research?

A: I have friends in the social welfare Ph.D. program. They're doing the data science certificate. And I always heard about data science. It's a buzzword, right? I have been interested, but I haven't had the opportunity to actually set the time aside to take a class during the fall or spring semester on data science. 

Then the call came out [for the Data Science + Social Justice Workshop]. That's when I was like, “Oh, maybe I could actually do this summer program, and then hopefully if I have time, I could do the certificate.” Also, it was advertised that you don't need to have any experience so that intimidation or initial knowledge barrier was removed. It made it more accessible for students with different backgrounds.

Q: What did you feel once you were in the workshop? 

A:  I was exploring a new field. At first, we read different articles that looked at diversity and equity within data science research. That to me was very eye-opening – how this kind of work that I'm interested in is done in a different setting. 

The way the workshop is set up, you don't need to have any data science skills. Luckily, I had already taken an R course with the D-Lab. It was very affirming, too, that I was able to start from scratch and then collaborate with other peers to do a summer project.

Q: What could you do using data science that you wouldn't have been able to do before? 

A: It gave me a different research skill. For example, we learned modeling. We were looking at Reddit. Specifically, we were looking at the Ukraine subreddit. I have Ukrainian friends, and Ukraine is really close to my heart.

Our [team’s] research question was what are people saying about Ukraine on this subreddit? We did a comparison looking at how the discourse changed over time. We divided the [data] into three different timeframes: before 2013, the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula; and then from the [start of the current] war until now. By this time, it was May. This is something I never imagined being able to do.

Q: How did learning those skills change what you want to study in your future research? 

A: Right now, I look at the access and the barriers that students face when going into higher ed. I can also see myself doing research about the communications happening within social media. Traditionally, we see knowledge as being shared in a certain way, or the different value of knowledge, where we say, “This is valuable knowledge.” But there are many sources of knowledge and everybody can contribute knowledge. So for me, I’d like to try to see how through social media we spread access to and how to navigate higher education.

[I could research] how we – the university – could reach or provide information to people on social media and how people are sharing their own knowledge within these platforms to help each other navigate higher education. So, if I was an administrator trying to reach out to future students for my university, [I could use social media] to share information with other populations that might not have access to do a campus tour or different info sessions or panels. This is critical because not everyone has access to the hidden curriculum on how to navigate higher education.

There are online platforms, where students post, “Hey, I have this question” or, “I'm interested in going to this university. How do I apply? How do I get there?” There’s this one Facebook group called “Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees.” It's a national group. [I could see] doing research there: What are the major themes? Or how is this community helping share resources, but then also supporting each other through this process of getting a degree?

There's so much data available that we haven't started looking at because we only have access to [certain] kinds of datasets. Social media for sure is a place that’s rich with data.