It only took a few weeks for Byron R. Núñez ’18 to realize that Pomona College was not what he had been expecting. The first in his family to go to college, Núñez found life at Pomona different from the college life he’d imagined: classes were small and not hundreds of nameless students, professors here noticed your absences – and they knew your name.
Núñez didn’t have much to go on about what to expect once he left high school but, looking back: “I don’t think I would have been as successful if I had not gone to a liberal arts school,” he says. “I was able to grow into a person that felt comfortable talking to professors, having debates with peers, and engaging in collaborative learning environments.”
Today, Núñez is graduating as a politics major, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF) and most recently, he was named one of the 2018-2019 American Political Science Association (APSA) Minority Fellowship Program recipients, an award that provides $4,000 in funding for graduate school and support in the graduate school application process.
He has plans to pursue a career as a professor of politics and one day work at a small private liberal arts college like Pomona – all of this thanks to the faculty who have mentored him along the way.
Born in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Núñez was 11 when his family settled in Silver Spring, Md. Excelling at school, Núñez started looking at colleges but admits “when I was applying to colleges, I didn’t know the difference between liberal arts and regular university.”
The admissions officers at Pomona College invited him to fly in for a weekend – and the personal attention he received made the visit go smoothly. “I felt like people actually cared about my success and well-being – and that gets back to Pomona being a small school.”
Although he was undecided about his major when he first enrolled at Pomona, Núñez thought he wanted to do something STEM-related and was part of the first Pomona Scholars of Math (PSM) cohort. Although math didn’t pan out in the end, he credits the program with helping prepare him for academic life at Pomona.
“I was able to confidently go talk to professors: I was given assignments, like take a professor to lunch or go to office hours and ask a random question – that made it easier for me. Weekly check-ins as a cohort through PSM and later through Mellon [Mays Undergraduate Fellows Program] shaped my experience at Pomona.”
The classes and faculty at Pomona have been equally instrumental for Núñez.
The first class at Pomona that Núñez ever stepped foot in was his Chicano/Latino History seminar with History Professor Tomás Summers Sandoval. “I had never had a Latino teacher, let alone a male professor… The class was unlike anything I had ever taken before since it didn’t solely focus on the Euro-American experience. His teaching pedagogy drew me into a subject I knew little about and made me question narratives that ignore race, class, gender, and sexuality in social and political histories.”
He says, “The fact that he was a Latino male professor, also instilled the idea that if I wanted to, I could be one too.”
Summer Sandoval remembers first meeting Núñez in that class, "He was a stand-out student even then. At the time he was part of the Pomona Scholars of Math cohort program and I just kept thinking 'This kid belongs in the humanities and social sciences!'"
The spring of his sophomore year, Núñez took a class that set the course for the rest of his time at Pomona: American Constitutionalism with Politics Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky.
“In most of the classes I had taken, I kept learning new concepts but it didn’t change my view of the world or my politics in general – but that class changed everything for me: my understanding of how the law works, how different actors engage with one another through law, and how inattentive law can be to people’s experience,” he says.
“I thought the Constitution was this big infallible document you couldn’t mess with. Yet, you learn that these ideal of liberty, equality, and due process, don’t really translate to people’s on-the-ground experience.”
Thanks to MMUF, Núñez was able to do summer research programs after his sophomore and junior years that combined his interest addressing questions of belonging and citizenship through politics and scholarship.
At UCLA one summer, his research focused on analyzing bathrooms as sites of civil rights contestation by looking at the struggles of African Americans, Americans with disabilities and transgender/gender-nonconforming individuals.
The following summer, Núñez was at the University of Chicago looking at how the policies around sanctuary cities have changed the dynamics between local, state and federal government.
That sparked his interest in the immigrant rights movement and how different communities who are at the margins of American society are able to exercise political powers they do not have to push for a fairer and just state for all.
This is the topic of interest that Núñez plans to pursue in graduate school: “I hope to focus on the role of individual and grassroots based change and their ability to shift the operation of political, legal, and social institutions,” he says.