Meet Isela Peña-Rager, L&S Advising Assistant Director & Chair for Alianza

Isela Peña-Rager is the Assistant Director of the L&S Office of Undergraduate Advising, and the Chair of Alianza—an organization committed to the community building, professional development, and promotion of Latinx staff at UC Berkeley.

Isela is a first-generation college student, a Latina, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, and a strong advocate for mental health and social justice. She has been a part of the L&S Office of Undergraduate Advising team since 2020, and since then has constantly strived towards guiding and assisting UC Berkeley students beyond the classroom with the utmost respect. 

Below, Isela shares what attracted her to her position, discusses her passion for guiding students, and highlights the many ways Alianza carries out its mission. 

More information about Alianza.

October 3, 2022

How did you come to UC Berkeley?

I’m a Southern California Native, born and raised in Huntington Park, a city with a Latinx population of over 95%. In 2013, I applied to work at UC Berkeley because my husband wanted to be closer to his younger brother, who doubles as his best friend. What better place to start a new adventure for our little family of three and to grow my career than at the top public university in the world, right?

What drew you to work in advising?

Service, representation, and the draw of being in an intellectually stimulating environment.

In college I discovered that I was at my best when I was able to exercise creativity and help people discover something new or navigate anything confusing or complex. My peers often sought my help on how to work equipment in the photography lab and art studio where I spent countless hours. During and after graduate school I spent a few years in front of the classroom, mostly teaching adult learners English and Spanish languages and literature. When I started a family, I spent a couple of years as a freelance translator for publications of school districts and community colleges, with the aim to improve access for Spanish-literate families. Soon, however, I sorely missed interacting directly with students, even though I no longer felt as motivated to teach, create lesson plans, and grade assignments every day. 

In my first advising role at my undergraduate alma mater, I had the wonderful opportunity to supervise and mentor the first-gen, low-income students who worked in the international and study abroad services office; plan events with domestic students who had spent time abroad; encourage those who might have never dreamed it was possible to go abroad; advise international students from all over the world; form strong relationships with colleagues across student affairs; and, reconnect with my former professors and administrators. I even had an offer to teach my own American cultures class. 

While I didn’t remain at my alma mater for long, and my dream of working in international education eventually shifted, I knew that advising and student services would continue to offer me opportunities to grow and learn every day, and that has certainly proven to be the case. 

Nothing compares to my experience at L&S Advising, where we work with 23,000+ of the most brilliant and inspiring undergraduates, numerous folx who return for readmission after a semester or even decades away, and invaluable campus partners. At L&S, I reconnected with a purpose to serve members of my community in a particular way. It can be difficult to navigate an institution that was not intentionally founded with you in mind, and I learned from my time as an L&S College Adviser that my identity mattered because representation does truly matter to our students, and that our presence is an incredible asset in spaces that students have historically perceived and experienced as intimidating and lacking in cultural humility. I returned to L&S Advising as an Assistant Director for the same reason. I noticed that justice-focused professionals of color were also looking for representation. 

I hope that the work I do to coach, support, listen to, and amplify the voices of our equity-oriented advising staff has a positive ripple effect on the student experience. 

Tell us about Alianza and your work with the organization. 

This year, I serve as Chair for the Alianza Staff Organization, which enables community engagement and networking opportunities for UC Berkeley Chicanx/Latinx staff by hosting events and highlighting relevant stories, opportunities, and resources to maintain a united community and affirm and amplify staff voices at all levels.

In this role, I collaborate with an incredible and dedicated leadership team that includes a Past Chair, a Chair-Elect, a Latinx-Thriving Institution (LTI) Initiative representative, and several other elected officers from our staff community.

Are there other campus organizations that you draw inspiration and support from as a Latina?


I’ll list a few: 

  • Dismantling Racism Study and Action Group

  • the Coalition of Ethnic Staff Organizations (CESO), which currently includes representatives from APASA, BSFO, MENASA, NAIC, and Alianza

  • The Multicultural Education Program (MEP) Diversity Facilitators

  • The Cal Coaching Network (CCN), which I co-chair with the incredibly talented and supportive Colin Gerker-Junsay

  • The BSA Mentorship Program, where I have served for several years as a mentor

  • La Colectiva, a collective of all the Brown (Chicanx/Latinx) spaces/places at UC Berkeley whose main purpose is “to get to know one another, learn about our spaces, share and coordinate information and events, support one another, and leverage our spaces/places and resources for the Chicanx/Latinx communities on campus and beyond.”

  • Fellow Latinas and women of color across the university!

Some of these spaces and people are not necessarily sponsored by the university, although they are all service- and human-centered, and they are all groups on which I lean for much needed re-energizing and healing. 

What motivates you to be not only an advisor but also a chair for Alianza? Any plans to celebrate Alianza's 30th anniversary this year?

My biggest motivator on campus is coalition-building. Connecting with people and resources across campus has made me more confident as an adviser, especially when it comes to warm handoffs and strategic collaboration that improves the student experience. 

I approach Alianza in the same way. I truly believe that we are stronger and healthier as a people and an organization when we stick together and stick to our word. 

In Alianza’s 30th year, and in response to feedback, we are planning several virtual and in-person events, starting with Latinx Heritage Month from Sept 15th - Oct 15th. Our members crave connection more than ever after a few truly harrowing and challenging years, and we aim to deliver in true alliance (alianza) fashion. 

How does it feel to lead an organization whose sole purpose is to support Latinx staff like yourself? Do you find that this organization is critical to the success and support of the Latinx community?

I experience a mix of humility, pride, and responsibility in my position as Chair. 

One of the main reasons I decided to take on Alianza leadership roles was to do my part in addressing some of the tensions within our own, complex, intersectional Latinx communities, such as colorism, toxic nationalism, anti-Black and anti-indigenous racism, transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny. While facing this reality, I also wanted to highlight Latinx excellence and the everyday Latinx experience, essentially amplifying our humanity. 

I’m grateful to our visionary founders and to the many iterations of organizers who kept Alianza going these past three decades; and I’m beyond inspired by our current, insanely talented leadership team.

This year, in collaboration with my colegas, I wish to continue to gather and mobilize Latinx folx who are passionate about justice and love. Everyone finds community in their own way. My hope is that Alianza’s 2022-2023 focus on joy, purpose, and intentional inclusion will lead to an increase in engagement from staff across campus. We must continue to improve outreach to Union-represented staff. 

What advice would you give to your past self, and to students who find themselves in similar situations as yours? (Latinx, Immigrant parents, First-generation)

While I try to steer clear of too much advice-giving, I do wish I had learned more explicitly about frameworks such as Yosso’s (2005) Community Cultural Wealth model when I was younger. 

Language is powerful. It has been life-changing to be able to name the strengths and capitals with which my fellow first-gen Latinx students and I are uniquely gifted. 

For example, in the moments early in life when monolingual folks insinuated that the pronunciation of my name or a casual greeting was too foreign sounding for them to give me the time of day, I wish I had made the connection that their insecurity, fear, disdain paled in comparison to the potency of my multilingualism, regardless of my family’s socioeconomic status. 

This world, and this university, desperately needs our perspective and our beauty. Our faculty and staff need practical frameworks that center our communities because this benefits and elevates all students, staff, faculty, and research. 

I understand that the mission of Alianza is a commitment to "community building, professional development, and promotion of Latinx staff at UC Berkeley." What would you say your personal mission statement is?

That’s a big question! I’ll give it a try. 

I’m committed to authenticity, admitting when I’ve made mistakes, naming injustice while offering realistic solutions, and showing up. 

Three women hold up goodie bags (paper bags) at a table

Alianza members share goodie bags with guests

Five women hold up paper goodie bags, smiling at the camera

Isela (far right), with fellow Alianza members

Alianza Goodie Bags.
People gathered in a line to approach a table by Alianza

Alianza SummerFest 2019

Birds eye view of people picnicking on a blanket

Alianza at a CESO (Coalition of Ethnic Staff Orgs) picnic