Malika Bell

Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Malika Bell of the Santa Cruz Learning Center travelled around the world in high school and graduated at the age of 16. Talk about an early achievement! Not only that, but she was a first generation college student. Her father immigrated from Morocco and Malika attended college at the same time as her mother! But she actually didn’t go to college right away—she worked at a restaurant and got her phlebotomy (professional vampire, as she calls it) license first.

She decided to attend Cabrillo and ended up tutoring during her entire time there (and subsequently, for the rest of her college career). When she transferred to UCSC, Nancy Cox-Konopelski (Director of the Academic Excellence Program) encouraged her to apply for the first Gates Millenium Scholarship, with the help of several chemistry professors on campus. Malika was accepted as one of the first 500 recipients of the full scholarship, under the caveat that her major had to be science related and she couldn’t take a break from her education.

Malika was into drama and singing in high school, so during college she discovered that she had a public speaking ability. One of her high school math instructors, Mr. Rogers, had let her sing and record songs she’d written to explain math (that’s one way to make it fun)! Naturally, she became a TA, worked in the labs and switched from biology (her advised major) to chemistry (her true interest). She was then accepted into the PhD program at UCSC. Shortly afterwards, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Malika took the summer off to be with and care for her. She passed away right after Malika presented her master’s seminar, which was on chemotherapy.

By this time, Malika was recognizing her talents as a leader. She realized how difficult the education system was for incoming students to navigate and found her niche in helping them. “Being a scientist, you share your research.” She went on to become coordinator for the Center for Adaptive Optics through the Institute for Scientist Educators and partnered with various other programs, including SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science). “My friends say I became a program horder.” After the 2008 recession, higher education funding was cut and UCSC could no longer pay a director for each program, so Malika gradually took on leadership positions for student support programs across the STEM disciplines, eventually establishing the STEM Diversity Center. She was able to achieve this new Center model with the encouragement of her supervisors: Professors Alan Zahler, Barry Bowman and Melissa Jurica. The program is still running.

In 2009, Malika and her husband established the Santa Cruz Learning Center, offering after school support, tutoring, homeschool classes, SAT prep, and winter and spring camp. She loves being her own boss. “I’m a very independent, hard-headed woman. Now I can help how I want to help and make the changes I would like to make.” Amen to that! The center helps about 200 students a year, and Malika says they become a close family during their time together. “I feed them and they come,” she jokes.

Although she always has work to do, Malika loves to spend time with her husband and two daughters. And it might come as a surprise to learn that her brother has recently been coined the “Cannabis King” of California over at Kind Peoples Collective in Soquel. Evidently ambition runs in the family!

So please join us in celebrating Malika and all the hard work she does to help others: HER story is OUR story!

Visit her website for more information:

Written by our discoverHER blogger: Liz Hodges