100 Coffees

Coffee #3: Alex Villegas

A conversation with Alex Villegas, a graduating undergraduate student at UCSB. She shares more about her adventures abroad, how she learned to love cooking and the impact that she wants to make on the world.

Alex and I met late last year in the Netherlands, when we both studied abroad at Maastricht University. We lived on the same floor, and my favorite moments with her included bonding over recipe exchanges and US / world politics discussions. One characteristic that continues to strike me about her is her ability to empathize with opposing perspectives on issues. She is intelligent and informed, but she also knows how to enjoy life and not take anything too seriously.

Despite talking to her on a regular basis when we were floor mates, I wanted to get to know her on a deeper level beyond the typical small talk of “How are you” or “What are you up to?” In this conversation, Alex shares more about her adventures abroad, how she learned to love cooking and the impact that she wants to make on the world.

– Caroline


Alex in Florence Alex in Florence

Age: 32

Occupation: Sociology major at University of California, Santa Barbara

Favorite Coffee or Tea: My favorite coffee would be Illy’s Espresso, but only the imported kind.

Photo Source Photo Source

What is a perfect day to you?

For me, a perfect day would be a day without traffic in Los Angeles (which almost never happens). An easy commute, starting it outside—like a walk on the beach or any form of exercise—eating out in one of the cafes in Santa Monica, and then ending the day in the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles with a pint of beer.

When did you first start cooking and why do you love it?

I don’t recall the exact age I began to cook, but I grew up in the kitchen. My aunt raised me for a couple of years from when I was a baby to around ten or twelve. She did a lot of the cooking and a lot of things in the kitchen. I was always with her, so it became the norm for me to assist and help her. I fell in love with food that way because it became a comfort.

I started to gain skills as I grew older, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I spent more time refining my skills, and it was mainly due to the fact that I like feeding people. I find it very intimate to feed another person because it’s not just about the food—people gathered together, shared meals for survival, and nurtured one another. Feeding another human being creates bonds, trust, and intimacy.

“I find it very intimate to feed another person because it’s not just about the food—people gathered together, shared meals for survival, and nurtured one another.”

What are your favorite dishes to make?

Anything Italian, and I would say anything I can do from scratch.

What is your favorite place to travel to?

Traveling through Pompeii Traveling through Pompeii

If I had to say one country, it would be Italy. I’ve done a lot more traveling in this country than others. The food and pastries are amazing—I love the history, architecture, the art, and culture, especially in the smaller cities. Rome is stunning, but I feel like it’s not authentic. Cities like Florence, Naples, Pompeii gave me more of a “home” feel and more of that authenticity around what life is actually like in Italy on a daily basis.

Tell me an interesting story.

The first time that I traveled abroad (and my first Euro trip), I was looking for clubs that play industrial music. I found a place in Berlin, and I got all dressed up with the industrial goth scene feel, but when I got there, I realized it was a sex club. Since I figured I was in a new country, I might as well give it a shot. I went to the bar because I was stressed about the new environment—people were walking around topless and there were places for orgies—I was completely outside of my comfort zone. The music was cool, until I was propositioned by a couple in their early 40s for a threesome. I ran away since I had no intention in participating in any of that. But it makes for an interesting story. Lesson of the day: make sure to properly research where you go.

Can you tell me about a transformative experience in your life?

When I first started working with my team in a UCLA laboratory, I went in as a know-it-all 22-year-old with a chip on my shoulder. One of the people I worked with was a single mother, and the other was a woman in her sixties. I worked with people who came from different backgrounds, had different challenges in life, and they allowed me to see things from different perspectives. The best way I can put it is—I went in thinking that I knew more about life than anyone else.

When I really sat down and listened to these women, I never thought that a 62-year-old woman would become my best friend. She taught me about humility and learning about people, rather than jumping to a conclusion. She helped me undo many biases that I had—not only regarding age and gender, but also racial and ethnic stereotypes. She grew up in Texas, and she ended up marrying an African American man. At that time, when she was growing up, her relationship was frowned upon, so she shared the challenges that she went through: with her kids, her family, and as a woman. She then became the manager of an insurance company in Los Angeles, and she had a heart attack. She decided to go back to school and do a vocational thing for phlebotomy.

That entire relationship with my team helped me build myself into who I am today. I spent so much time with them in the lab and they became my family. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t for them supporting and cheering me on through everything I’ve accomplished, whether it is travel, my studies, etc.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best piece of advice I’ve received is to live a life that is authentic. When you wake up the next morning and look at your reflection in the mirror, you should know that you made the right choice. It’s living an authentic life and being true to yourself no matter what anybody thinks.

“When you wake up the next morning and look at your reflection in the mirror, you should know that you made the right choice.”

Who is someone who inspires you and why?

At the moment, one of the people that I look to for not just inspiration, but also, motivation, would be my niece, Desiree. She is currently at Fordham University and finishing up her senior year. She has always been a genuine, happy person. She also formed the first LGBTQ club at her school and she’s always fighting for human rights. She is interested in what other people have to say and she does a lot for certain oppressed communities. Her energy is uplifting.

She started applying to universities while she was finishing up high school, and that’s what encouraged me to finish up my own undergraduate education. I was always making excuses as to why I couldn’t go back to school full-time. During that time when I was spending a lot of time with her family, I finally decided to go back to undergrad and get to where I am today.

What are the three biggest things that you want to accomplish in life?

  1. Establishing my own company—a thriving company, not just a company.
  2. To be able to incorporate some form of humanitarian work so I can work abroad and help people who are in less desirable situations than myself. It’s very important to give back.
  3. To be able to raise children with not just morals, but the ability to think for themselves and to be confident in who they are.

What are your biggest fears?

There’s not enough time. I’m afraid that I’m going to run out of time before accomplishing the things I want to do. We can earn money, we can buy things, but time: you can never get back.

I do have a fear of failure but I been working on it. I’ve almost gotten out of that mindset—I now recognize that not all failures are bad, and they’re good for growth.

I fear regret—I don’t want to have regrets. I’d rather make a bunch of mistakes right now even if I might end up regretting the mistake. I want to be able to say that I took the chance to do something. At least, I know at the end of the day such is life, and I can move onto the next thing.

How do you want to be remembered?

I don’t want a funeral. I don’t want people to cry—I want people to be happy. I’ve done everything in life that I’ve wanted to do—good and bad. I want to know that I made a positive impact in society—that I left the world a better place than what I inherited.


Alex is graduating after the 2017 summer quarter at UCSB. Congratulations, and best of luck in your future endeavors!

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