Dalia Cornejo once thought she should be practical and pursue a career such as teaching. She even had a role model. As a teenager, she admired an uncle for being the only one of 11 siblings to earn a college degree and for becoming a professor. But a different calling beckoned.
“I feel like I have to create something everyday,” she declared. “I always liked to draw and paint. … but I wasn’t sure I could make a living at that—living in Mexico.”
Try as she might to stick to her original plans, a series of events unfolded that led to her passion, and in May the double major graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Art and Design and Spanish Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and is about to begin a graphic design career that will surely keep her creativity flowing.
Cornejo was born in Los Angeles but from the age of one grew up in Jalisco, Mexico. In 2003, the then-19-year-old returned to the United States following the death of her grandmother, who had raised her.
To rectify a linguistic disadvantage, she began taking English language courses in 2004.
“I wanted to learn English, because, for me, not knowing the language was like being mute, and not being able to hear or speak,” Cornejo said.
She went on to earn an Associate of Arts in general studies from El Camino College Compton Center (ECCCC), and encouraged by her mother, Cornejo transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills in 2008.
“My mother told me that classes were at a higher level [at a university],” Cornejo recalled. “She wanted something better for me than what she had. She never finished elementary school, in part because my grandfather used to believe that ‘women didn’t need an education to change diapers.’”
She initially transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills as a psychology major because, after having taken a psychology course at ECCCC, she became interested in learning what makes people think and act the way they do.
“I realized on my first day of class at [CSU Dominguez Hills] that I didn’t have enough knowledge and my command of the English language wasn’t good enough to study psychology,” Cornejo recalled.
Influenced by friends who were Spanish majors, and because of her background, she switched majors to join them. But in 2008, just about ready to graduate, she made another decision based on her long-standing interest in art.
“Even though I like Spanish, it wasn’t my passion,” she said. “I wanted to study graphic design. That meant two more years that [my mom and younger sister] had to wait for me.”
It would mean an extended burden on her family’s financial situation, but with her mother’s support, she added a second major.
To help out in some small way, she applied for and was granted a work study job at the university. But the financial strain on the family, which began in 2005 when her stepfather—the sole family provider—left, leaving the remaining three to fend for themselves, proved too much. Cornejo’s mother took a factory job, but was unable to cover the mortgage or to find a buyer for their Norwalk mobile home. In 2011, her mother filed for bankruptcy and not long after, their home went into foreclosure and the family was evicted.
“It was hard at first because … we had to live in somebody else’s house,” Cornejo said of living with relatives. “If you want to paint the walls red, you cannot do it. If you want to hang that frame, uh uh. You have to live by somebody else’s rules.”
While the home and her security were gone, not all was lost for Cornejo. The experience became the inspiration for “Destroy the Box,” which began as an assignment for Independent Study in Art (Art 494) taught by associate professor of art and design Michele Bury.
Cornejo created the experiential art project in response to her experiences with bankruptcy, stress, and cancer that took the life of an admired uncle. “Destroy the Box,” which can be viewed on Prezi and Flickr, allows participants to assemble boxes designed in themes based on the aforementioned issues and then destroy them as a cathartic exercise.
The assemblage and destruction of her boxes has only been carried out by Cornejo and a few of her friends; however, after receiving positive feedback during a presentation of the project at Student Research Day Symposium just weeks before commencement, she is assessing the feasibility of marketing ready-to-assemble kits to the wider public.
“I think you’re brilliant. I strongly suggest you trademark your idea,” CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White told Cornejo over a microphone in front of roughly 200 people attending the event. “Well done.”
Cornejo earned the opportunity to present her stress relief project at the symposium as a result of winning first place in the creative arts category at the CSU Dominguez Hills Student Research Day—the antecedent event held in February—as well as presenting at the systemwide CSU Student Research Competition held at Cal Poly Pomona in May.
Now graduated, her goal is to gain work experience. She recently accepted a graphic design internship with an international skin care company, which has offices in Carson.
With her determination, there’s little doubt she will be successful.
“I am where I am right now because I tell myself not to give up so easily. That’s my motto,” Cornejo said.