Inspired by the experiences of his past, junior Diego Leon helps ensure research reaches Latinx communities while mentoring students like him
By Bryana Quintana
Diego Leon, a junior studying psychology at San Diego State University, is many things. A NorCal native, a presenter at scientific conferences, a former foster youth, a valedictorian, a mentor. But in all that he does, one thing stands out: He is not letting his past dictate his future, instead using it as fuel in his efforts to better understand and serve his community.
Leon is currently a research assistant in SDSU’s Infant and Child Development Lab which conducts basic research on early language development. The lab hones in on children’s vocabulary learning, a factor that has a cascading effect on their lives through adulthood.
“Early vocabulary is a good predictor of whether the child will be reading by grade three, which helps predict who will graduate high school and then continue on to college,” said Margaret Friend, the lab’s director. “This goes on to impact employment and health.”
Friend’s lab strives to make this research more inclusive of Hispanic/Latinx communities, and therefore ensure it more accurately represents the region, by developing assessment tools in both English and Spanish. This includes a web-based tool that can be completed anywhere so that those uncomfortable with or unable to access lab environments may still participate.
Leon and other Spanish-speaking research assistants help create these tools and ensure they are culturally relevant, playing a key role in bringing this research to communities that may not otherwise be reflected in it.
“Oftentimes studies get generalized, and it’s unfortunate because most people that participate are not children of marginalized communities,” Leon said. “So it’s extremely important for me, as a Hispanic, that I was in this lab, to better understand and help my community.”
Diego Leon, junior psychology student at SDSU, interacts with children as he conducts virtual research assessments from SDSU’s Infant and Child Development Lab (Diego Leon/SDSU)
Coming from a low-income Latino family, Leon has overcome many obstacles to get to where he is now. He was placed into foster care during his middle school years, and said he began to lose himself in this tumult, failing every class and making frequent trips to the principal’s office.
But during this time, he was enrolled in an independent study program where the support of a teacher helped him find the version of himself that he’d lost as events beyond his control swirled around him.
In 2022, Leon graduated as valedictorian from Santa Rosa Junior College before transferring to SDSU under the Guardian Scholars program which supports former foster youth. The same year, he joined Friend’s lab and became a first-time author on a poster presented at the Western Psychological Association convention.
“Never did I think that I was going to be standing there and never did I think that I would see my name as a co-author on that type of poster,” Leon said. “I dreamed about this three years ago, and here I am today.”
Diego Leon, junior psychology student at SDSU, standing in front of a poster he co-authored and presented at the WPA convention (Margaret Friend/SDSU)
Leon currently mentors five students as part of the EOP SOAR Mentor Program, in addition to being part of the MARC program and a member of the Latinx-based fraternity Nu Alpha Kappa. After graduating, he plans to enter straight into a clinical psychology Ph.D. program before taking on a neuropsychology fellowship.
“Diego is a very, very bright student who has been very successful and is motivated to support other students like him,” Friend said. “It’s hard not to want to support a student like that.”
Leon said the influence of mentors including Friend, as well as his experiences in the foster care system and as one of the youngest program directors at his local Boys & Girls Club are what motivated his academic and professional aspirations.
“Some of my foster siblings and the people I was in the children’s home with ended up taking not the healthiest route,” he said. “I always wondered what makes you the best version of yourself and I think it’s truly your early years of life that build your foundation on your outlook for the future.”
Leon’s advice for others interested in pursuing research: “There’s a place for everybody. In this type of environment, there’s so much learning and you have endless possibilities for exploring the questions that you’ve always asked. It just takes one little step at a time.”