Aiming to Inspire

As the child of immigrants who came to the United States when she was just three years old, Vanessa Espinoza ‘15 knows what it’s like to struggle — adjusting to a new country, culture and climate was a difficult experience. But she doesn’t like to complain. “Why complain when you could do something about it instead” she said. “I see a problem, I think of solutions and I work with people to get it done.”

It’s that proactive attitude, combined with a passion for social justice, that’s driven Espinoza to become a visible advocate for her community. Her work paid off in a big way last year when she was inducted into the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Latino Hall of Fame — the youngest inductee so far, and the first to be honored in the youth category. Espinoza credits the University of Northern Iowa  with helping develop the passion for her culture that lead to her award-winning leadership.

University of Northern Iowa alumnae Vanessa Espinoza was the youngest person inducted into the Latino Hall of Fame.
University of Northern Iowa alumna Vanessa Espinoza accepts her induction into the Latino Hall of Fame.

“I knew that I was proud of being Latina in college because it was the first time that I took classes on my people,” she said. “UNI has some amazing professors in their Spanish department and I always went to them. UNI gave me opportunities and opened doors, and helped me shape myself holistically. I felt empowered.”

But the road to empowerment wasn’t easy. As a child, Espinoza struggled to envision a life for herself in Iowa. The Latinx (this word has been adopted by some as a gender-neutral version of Latino/Latina) community in her town was so small, she lacked a strong role model. “We arrived to Iowa and we didn’t have any family members here. It was a huge culture shock for us,” she said. “I feel like, in that sense, I lost a part of my soul when I came here. There was no sense of belonging, no community. There were so many things that we missed.”

Not only did she miss her relatives, but she missed the sounds and flavors of home. “I always grew up with noises around me like music. I miss the sound of the rooster waking us up. I know this sounds really weird, but coming here was really hard because all the senses were different,” she said. “Even when my mom would make sopa — soup — it didn’t taste like anything because the tomatoes were not like the ones in Mexico.”

But between her time as a student at UNI, where she was a prominent student leader on campus, and her life post-grad — working as a teacher, acting as an advocate for her students and co-founding a nonprofit — Espinoza has helped play a part in building stronger Latinx communities throughout Iowa (and she’s even found some authentic Mexican restaurants — La Placita in Waterloo was a favorite when she was a student at UNI). And it’s that desire to celebrate her culture and empower others that motivates her, not impressive awards and recognition.

“A lot of the things that I do, I think of the people coming behind me,” she said. “It’s not about the awards that you get, it’s about the time that you put in It’s about serving your community and making it a better place.”

Today, Espinoza is back in school, getting her master’s in education with an emphasis in social justice at Iowa State University, so she can continue doing the community-building and advocacy work that she’s so passionate about. For Espinoza, that passion comes from a desire to empower a new generation.

“Someone has to motivate the youth. It cannot always be the older generation and them saying, 'this is how we’ve always done it.' The kids have to see something different,” she said. “I’m going a different path than 99 percent of the women in my family and because of that I’m setting the trail for the women coming behind us. I’m giving them hope — I’m giving my little sister hope — that you can go to college, you can live in another country.  You can do more than what I’ve done. To me that’s what motivates me the most.”

Photos courtesy of Tar Macias of