Madina Zermeño draws from her experiences growing up in San Diego as a Muslim child and later volunteering abroad as she aims for a career improving life in underrepresented communities.
rowing up as a Muslim, Latina, Filipina woman of color, Madina Zermeño draws on her multifaceted identity to promote societal change.
Zermeño, a senior majoring in political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, grew up in San Diego, a diverse city bordering Tijuana, Mexico.
“There are so many minority intersectionalities that make up my identity, which has sparked my interest in social justice. Growing up in such a multicultural city, I was encouraged to advocate for the communities I come from,” she said.
Zermeño is passionate about carceral justice, including mass incarceration and juvenile justice. Several members of her family have been incarcerated, which has given her insight into similarities among minority neighborhoods and communities that struggle with poverty, gang violence and incarceration.
This personal experience sparked her interest in protecting communities from the pattern of repeated incarceration from one generation to the next that her family has struggled with — a personal battle Zermeño has channeled into a passion for societal change.
Zermeño has also focused on education, equity and access. Both of her parents work in education, so she has been able to identify ways American youth can use education as a tool to break societal patterns that have affected minority groups.
“It made me value education and want to advocate for quality education and access for the most deserving, underserved, and underrepresented youth,” she explained.
She finds herself tying together the issues of carceral justice and education, equity and access, with the issue of wealth inequality.
“I never grew up with a ton of money,” she said. “This taught me the importance of education because, without it, people can get stuck in the cycle of violence, drug abuse, and incarceration, which is all rooted in poverty. I’m passionate about ending this cycle by advocating for generational wealth in minority groups.”
Empowering her peers and gaining broad experience
Zermeño started a youth empowerment club at her high school during her sophomore year. Founded and run by her and her fellow students, “Ignite” (short for “Individual Goal-setters Nourishing Inspiration Through Empowerment”) was designed to empower high school students to become future leaders.
“Especially for people of color, our mission was to empower ourselves to be the leaders we want to see,” explained Zermeño. “Our motto was ‘I Give Up Nothing, I Transform Everything.’” Ignite opened up several opportunities for Zermeño, including creating an undergraduate course based on Ignite at the University of San Diego called the Social Fabric Initiative.
Zermeño has also volunteered abroad. Her sophomore year, during the 2019–20 winter break, she participated in a program in Rajasthan, India, where she tutored children in the Dalit community. She says her experience revealed many similarities between the historical factors preventing the Dalit community from emerging from poverty and the systems and institutions keeping underrepresented communities in the United State from climbing the social ladder.
Three days after completing her work in India, Zermeño traveled to Morocco, where she spent January to April 2020 interning for the nonprofit Jossour Forum des Femmes Marocaines, a female-founded and led organization impacting women and youth across the Middle East Northern Africa region.
“Being fully immersed in another culture was so life-changing and unforgettable,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity by USC and that I took the leap of faith to volunteer in both countries.”
Internships with high-profile political figures
In the summer of 2020, Zermeño took on three different internships, including one for the Borgen Project that focused on wealth equity and global poverty. Here, she was able to learn the roles and power of U.S. government officials and understand better the different ways that the government works.
This past summer, she was able to take this knowledge and apply it to her internship position with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s office. “The whole office is representative of San Diego’s diverse communities, so it was nice to see that our mayor values that,” Zermeño said.
Zermeño also undertook a second internship, this one with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in Washington. She met and networked with a wide variety of young congresswomen of color, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley.
Last semester, she interned for the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office, and this semester, she is interning for The Refugee Legal and Advocacy Centre based in Cape Town, South Africa, through the U.S. Department of State’s International Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship.
Zermeño hopes to one day attend law school and later become either a civil rights attorney or a criminal defense lawyer.
“It comes from a love and a passion for societal change,” she explains, “and if not us, if not me or others from the communities I come from, then who? It’s not that I love politics. These are things that directly impact me and my family, so I have to advocate for them.
“Just coming into the room with confidence and letting people know that, while people may underestimate me because I’m a woman, a person of color, or someone from a different religion than they are, I am just as knowledgeable, just as skilled, and I deserve a seat at the table.”