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UCLA student, activist and McNair Research Scholar Luis Jimenez dies at 33

Luis Jimenez, a Chicana and Chicano studies and sociology student, activist and McNair Research Scholar, is pictured. Jimenez died Dec. 13 at 33 years old. (Courtesy of Nora Kenney)

By Dylan Winward and Anna Dai-Liu

Feb. 13, 2024 5:29 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that "Almost Home" was nominated for one regional Emmy Award. In fact, it was nominated for four regional Emmy Awards and won two. Also, the original version of this article incorrectly stated that Silvia Jimenez said Luis Jimenez experienced racism and discrimination while at Palomar College. In fact, she said Luis Jimenez experienced racism and discrimination while at UCLA. Also, the original version of this article misspelled Alice Ho's name.

This post was updated Feb. 16 at 3:25 p.m.

Luis Jimenez, a Chicana and Chicano studies and sociology student, activist and McNair Research Scholar, died Dec. 13. He was 33.

Originally from Escondido, California, Jimenez – who was formerly incarcerated – attended UCLA after transferring from Palomar College. At UCLA, Jimenez advocated for students with dependents, system-impacted students – or those affected by the carceral system – and students seeking help with their mental health. Jimenez is survived by his mother Silvia Jimenez, his brother Roberto Bolaños and his sons Leonardo and Keehlan Bolaños.

Luis was born in Mexico and later moved to the United States, Silvia said, adding that his childhood was not easy. Silvia, whose interview was conducted in Spanish, said he was a respectful, caring and loving son.

“From when he was born, from when he could use reason – he was an excellent son,” she said.

Growing up, Luis valued respect for all and valued his education, Silvia said. He was generous and cared about sharing what he had with others, even if it was not much, she said.

Silvia also said despite the challenges Luis experienced, he always remained positive. She added that when he was young, he would always have dinner ready and the laundry washed when she would come home from work.

She also said he told her his goal was to work enough so she wouldn’t have to work so much, and that he wanted to buy her a house.

“That was my son,” she said. “A great person.”

Luis attended MiraCosta College and then Palomar College, two community colleges near Escondido.

Luis eventually found support and love at Palomar through the school’s Rising Scholars program for formerly incarcerated students, Silvia said.

Nora Kenney, the program’s coordinator, said one way Luis helped other students was by serving as an example of what they could achieve through education. She added that Luis shared his experiences with others as a formerly incarcerated student by participating in a documentary film called “Almost Home,” which was later nominated for four regional Emmy Awards and won two.

“They see him as a formerly incarcerated scholar who had mixed-status immigration and had some mental health struggles,” Kenney said. “He was an inspiration because people could see, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

His advocacy work continued after he transferred to UCLA, where Luis served as an advocate for students recovering from addiction. He wrote an opinion editorial last year in the Daily Bruin calling on the Center for Accessible Education to provide accommodations for students who relapse.

“I hope to raise awareness of this issue that seems to be ignored on our campus. Unfortunately, my story is not the only one,” he wrote in the op-ed. “Because of the institution’s punitive response to these struggles, these students would rather struggle in the shadows. It is time for this dilemma to be addressed.”

During his time at UCLA, Luis experienced racism and discrimination because he was formerly incarcerated, his mother said. She said people would tell him things such as, “A criminal will always be a criminal,” and would refuse to work with or talk to him, adding that this saddened him.

Lilly Angel, a fourth-year American literature and culture student, said she first met Luis through the Transfer Summer Program. She added that she became closer to him because they were both student-parents and members of the Bruin Underground Scholars, a group dedicated to formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students.

Jason Sexton, a lecturer in the sociology department who taught Luis, said Luis traveled to Sacramento to advocate for increased funding for programs supporting formerly incarcerated people. He added that Luis always made sure that his academic work and research aligned with the causes most important to him.

“He was really switched on with issues of justice, issues throughout the state, issues of carcerality, issues of mental health,” Sexton said. “He understood the importance of education in his journey.

Kenney said Luis advocated for more resources for student-parents at UCLA, including by writing a letter to Chancellor Gene Block calling for family housing on the Hill, electricity costs to be covered by the university and a designated mental health counselor for parenting students. Angel added that she felt Luis was important in advocating for student-parents with university leaders.

“He was truly, truly a great father, and you could see that with the way he was even with other kids,” Angel said. “He was just a really, really good person, and he’s missed by a lot of people.”

Luis’ kids meant everything to him, Silvia said, adding that he would go running and biking with them around campus.

He aimed to teach them good values and to help those in need, she said. For example, Silvia said Luis and his children made food together and distributed it to people experiencing homelessness.

“For his children, their father was everything, … and his priority (was) always his children,” she said.

UCLA awarded Luis the McNair Research Scholarship ahead of his last year. The scholarship is awarded to students focusing on social justice who plan on pursuing a doctoral degree, according to the program’s website.

Luis’ friends said he was most proud of that academic achievement.

Iris Lucero, assistant director of the McNair Scholars program, said Luis contributed to the university by advocating for people who have faced systemic challenges in their education.

Alice Ho, the director of the program, added that Luis showed other students the possibilities of education.

“He was showing his kids, but also others, that he could do this degree, and that he wanted others to follow in his footsteps,” she said.

Daniel Solorzano, a professor of Chicana/o and Central American studies as well as social science and comparative education, said he advised Luis on his McNair thesis, which focused on the importance of mentoring for community college students. Solorzano said one thing that struck him about Luis was his attention to detail, adding that he would follow up on citations and footnotes from readings he was assigned.

Solorzano also said one of his most treasured memories of Luis was how he would bring his children to researcher apprenticeship course meetings and let them listen in on conversations about undergraduate research.

Kenney said Luis, inspired by his McNair thesis project, applied for a master’s degree in college counseling at San Diego State University to help others navigate their educational journeys. She said Luis was previously a peer mentor for the Rising Scholars program.

“Luis was an amazing peer mentor because he was a helper,” Kenney said.

Kenney also said Luis helped other students who were facing issues with motivation, academic planning and technology.

Angel said one of the most special things about Luis was how supportive he was, as she was always able to call him to talk about her day. She added that one of her favorite memories was when Luis carried her youngest son, who was having a hard time, on his shoulders through a pumpkin patch.

Kenney added that she would remember Luis for his positivity, care for others and sense of humor.

“He always was full of integrity,” Kenney said. “He was full of hope, and he believed in everyone.”

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Dylan Winward | Features and student life editor
Winward is the 2023-2024 features and student life editor. He was previously a News reporter for campus politics and features and student life. He is also a second-year English literature and statistics student.
Winward is the 2023-2024 features and student life editor. He was previously a News reporter for campus politics and features and student life. He is also a second-year English literature and statistics student.
Anna Dai-Liu | Science and health editor
Dai-Liu is the 2023-2024 science and health editor and Copy staff member. She was previously a News staff writer and is currently a third-year neuroscience and comparative literature student.
Dai-Liu is the 2023-2024 science and health editor and Copy staff member. She was previously a News staff writer and is currently a third-year neuroscience and comparative literature student.
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