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Denisse Silva wants to share the power of therapies learned around the globe

Silva Portrait

Denisse Silva earned her bachelor’s degree in political science at CSUB and is now working on her master’s in counseling psychology.

Alumni Engagement Specialist

The topic was inequality, and the CSUB political science professor placed a piece of chocolate in front of the class.

“Whoever wants this chocolate can come right down and grab it,” she said.

Denisse Silva immediately understood her professor’s point: The students in the front of the class had an advantage over those in the back. Just as in everyday life there are the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

In that moment, Silva knew she wanted to help level the playing field.

At first she thought that might be as a social justice lawyer. But through some self-exploration that took her around the globe, Silva decided to become a therapist and is working on her master’s degree in counseling psychology at CSUB.

What kind of therapist she’s still working out, but she’s discovered the power of physical activity and deep breathing to discover feelings and clear the mind of anxiety and pain. What kind of physical activity?

Yoga and scuba diving. Even in Bakersfield.


Silva knows a lot about being disadvantaged.

Her father was deported to Mexico when she was young, so she didn’t have much of a relationship with him until age 20. Her mother worked the night shift at Grimmway Farms, and so wasn’t around much for her and her three siblings. Silva’s teachers were her parental figures.

Not until high school did she get a chance to participate in after-school activities. And so she went “crazy” then and joined everything: Soccer, cross-country, track, Spanish Club, French Club, the “We the People” team and, particularly formidably, wrestling.

She was one of two girls who wrestled at Golden Valley High School, and won matches against boys.

“Wrestling is a very mental sport because you have to dedicate yourself to eating correctly, and at that age you don’t care about those things,” Silva said. “It taught me self-discipline, self-control. It taught me so many things about myself.”

Silva posing with cross country team

Silva, far left, poses before a cross country race representing Golden Valley High School.

With a high GPA, lots of extra-curriculars and passage of two advanced placement exams with a 4, Silva got into UC Santa Barbara. But she only lasted two semesters there.

As a first-generation college student, she didn’t realize how expensive a UC education would be and didn’t want to ask her mother to help pay for it. She was also homesick.

So she transferred to CSUB in December 2012, and looked for ways to enjoy its campus life. She was a resident assistant in the dorms and joined the Political Science Honors Society and CSUB Society of Leadership & Success. In 2016 she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis in international relations and minors in Spanish and sociology.  

To acquire her minor in Spanish, Silva spent a semester at a prestigious university in central Mexico, Tec de Monterrey in Querétaro. It was also a chance to explore her Latin American roots since her dad was Mexican and her mom Salvadoran.

The experience showed her “there is so much out there in the world,” and from then on she went about exploring it


After graduation, Silva moved to Oregon and interned for Environment for the Americas, a nonprofit that provides internships to Latinos in conservation. Through it she also worked for the Bureau of Land Management and Oregon State University conducting bird surveys, doing research and engaging Spanish-speaking communities who typically don’t frequent state and national parks.

“I really appreciated the outdoor job because I was in nature pretty much 100 percent of the time,” Silva said.

Silva in Oregon

After earning her bachelor’s degree at CSUB, Silva interned in Oregon encouraging Latinos to get involved in conservation and conducting bird surveys herself.

But one can only take so much isolation, and Silva returned to Bakersfield to make connections with people again. She mentored at-risk youth at her alma mater, Golden Valley High, and “became that adult that they may not have had in their life growing up.”

One of her mentees was freshman Josue Vega, who was getting Ds and letting sports get in the way of doing his schoolwork. Silva helped Vega strategize how to multi-task, he said.

She also laid it out to him plainly: If he wanted the career he said he wanted, he had to get his grades up. Vega wants to be a DEA agent and fight the drug problem he’s seen take a toll on people he knows.

“She helped me figure out I could be an athlete and a smart person at the same time, you just have to work for it,” Vega, now 16, said. “Not everything is just going to come to you.”

Silva with her mentees

Silva and some of her mentees pick up trash in east Bakersfield.

Vega said he’s now earning As, Bs and Cs as a homeschooled student through Mojave River Academy.

The mentoring experience showed Silva she really liked working with people one-on-one, but in what ways she learned elsewhere: Thailand and Hawaii.


In Thailand Silva earned her divemaster, a certification for scuba diving instructors, and met people from all over the world. Being alone in a country where she didn’t speak the language, she had to be completely self-sufficient for the first time.

 Silva scuba diving

Silva enjoys a silly moment in the ocean while earning her divemaster in Thailand.

Certification in hand, she moved to Hawaii to work for a wilderness therapy program for adults 18 to 24 with mental health concerns such as addiction and suicidality. She would explore nature, cook, meditate and otherwise build structure in their lives as they received therapy from professionals.

“It was in the middle of Hawaii and there was wilderness all around us and they were stripped of their technology, everything that they ever identified with,” she said. “And that’s when I saw the growth in people.

“They’d come in just devastated and at the one-month mark, you could see the change in them.”

That’s how she knew she wanted to become a therapist, particularly through alternative forms of therapy, and returned home to set on that path.

She’s studying at CSUB and teaching yoga in Oildale. She’d like to introduce therapeutic scuba to Bakersfield, which she says can be done in a pool.

The deep breathing techniques and teamwork associated with scuba is good for calming anxiety and building relationships, Silva said.

“That’s where I think I’m going to have to really focus my practice, on mindfulness and what it is to be in the moment, what it is to be aware of your feelings and the pain that you may be feeling,” Silva said.

People tend to suppress these feelings, she said, and it’s terribly unhealthy.

Silva teaches diving off Catalina

Silva teaches scuba off Catalina to members of the Boy Scouts of America at Camp Emerald Bay.

She’s also starting on research with CSUB Assistant Professor Richard Zamora asking first-generation Latino college students what success means to them and what drives them to push through the obstacles many of them face in higher education. Are those things intrinsic or extrinsic?

That’s among the questions they now plan to pose to focus groups. The goal is to increase graduation rates among first-generation Latinos “by knowing what success is for them and how we can help them achieve whatever that is.”

The scholarship money will help make it all possible. Silva’s mother has had to stop working due to a shoulder injury and so Silva is supporting her. She’s working at the Graduate Student Center, but only 20 hours a week.

Her biggest stress the last year hasn’t been exams or grades but making tuition payments in addition to covering rent and food.

“I struggled this first year, I struggled a lot,” Silva said. “It would bring me so much relief just not having to worry about that.”


Every year, the CSUB Alumni Association awards scholarships to CSUB graduates pursuing their graduate degree on campus.

For the 2019-2020 academic year we have awarded three scholarships totaling $7,000, and we will be profiling all of them:

Dina Saavedra: $3,000

Denisse Silva: $2,000

Karen Vazquez: $2,000

Check out our scholarship page for more information.