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Erica A. Nieblas, right, gets a kiss from her husband Michael Nieblas after her commencement ceremony. Photos by Karen Tapia

From Bookworm to Philosopher

Student Finds Refuge in Books, Opportunities in Higher Education

May 4, 2010

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Erica A. Nieblas

Age: 23

Residence: Highland

Degree: B.A. in English and philosophy, expected in August

Favorite Professors: Mitch Avila, chair and associate professor of philosophy; Emily S. Lee, assistant professor of philosophy; Kay Stanton, professor of English; and J. Chris Westgate, assistant professor of English

Favorite Author: Eugene O’Neill

Favorite Philosophers: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl and Immanuel Kant

Like Matilda Wormwood, the 4-year-old genius heroine in “Matilda,” her favorite Roald Dahl children’s book, Erica A. Nieblas was a ravenous reader at a young age.

“My parents fought a lot in those days,” Nieblas said, “There were a lot of worries."

Born in Mexico, the second of four children in a family struggling to make ends meet in the inner-city, she used to lock herself in the bedroom to escape in her books. She spoke Spanish before she began learning English in 1989, the year her family immigrated to California. She was 2.

Now 23, the McNair Scholar recalls learning her second language by going through a set of encyclopedias with her father.

Her parents had barely completed grade school and realized that they had to teach her and her siblings to read before they entered Kindergarten to prepare them to take advantage of any potential opportunities.

Nieblas, who lives in Highland with her husband Michael, is completing her bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy cum laude. She was honored as the speaker at the Philosophy Department’s commencement ceremony last month.

She will complete her undergraduate studies in August and hopes to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy.

Perhaps she chose this path as a first-grader when she checked out Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” from her school library. Alice's adventures, Nieblas said, influenced her to become “curiouser and curiouser” about life.

As a McNair Scholar on campus, Nieblas and other high-achieving students are paired with professors on research projects. Nieblas has been working with Emily S. Lee, assistant professor of philosophy, on a project dealing with philosophical interpretations of the human body.

In particular, “I am drawing from Henri Bergson’s ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ and ‘The Creative Mind’ to explore deterioration and deconstruction of the body and how this influences our conceptions of time and space,” Nieblas said.

She and Lee are writing a paper on the topic and plan to present it at upcoming philosophy conferences nationwide.

Nieblas also will be attending the 2010 Colorado Summer Seminar in Philosophy at the University of Colorado, a program geared for outstanding undergrads who are considering graduate school in philosophy.

She's kept busy in both her disciplines. She chaired this year's 18th annual Shakespeare Symposium and responding to a talk by Charles Mills, profesor of philosophy from Northwestern University, on the topic of race and historical materialism at Cal State Fullerton's 40th annual Philosophy Symposium.

This summer, she is serving as a research assistant for J. Chris Westgate, assistant professor of English, on his forthcoming book "Slumming and Realism in Progress-Era Theater.”

On her reason for pursuing philosophy, Nieblas said: “I wonder about human motivations for truth, knowledge and moral choice; about the lived experiences of individuals in various socio-political and historical contexts; and the formation of identity and values.”

Mitch Avila, chair and associate professor of philosophy, calls Nieblas an “exceptional, mature and thoughtful student of the highest moral character."

“I expect that Erica soon will be an outstanding member of our profession,” he said. "She received more perfect paper scores than any other student in recent memory. Each paper had a thoughtful and carefully-written summary and critical analysis.”

Nieblas' goal is to “live, learn and teach."

"I have the responsibility to learn and to impart that knowledge,” she said. “That's what makes life worth living. If I become a professor, I can do what I think I'm meant to do.”

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