Students You Should Know: Nilvia Reyes

Coming to college is a hard transition for any student, but for someone brought to the U.S. as a child without documentation, things like going to college can come with additional difficulties. However, junior history major Nilvia Reyes is living proof that it's not impossible.

Reyes came to the U.S. when she was 1, when her mom made the move from Mexico to California in hopes of building a better life for her and her family. A few years later, her family moved to Iowa, where they really settled in and became extremely involved in the community. It was then that Reyes' ambition began to show.

Nilvia Reyes
Nilvia recently received the 2013 ACLU of Iowa's Robert Manheimer Youth Advocacy Award for work she did in her hometown.

Her mother offered English and Spanish classes through their church, and also worked with the church and the local chamber of commerce to organize multicultural fairs. Reyes helped her mother with these endeavors and before long, she became inspired to start her own projects.

When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides eligible individuals with authorization to work and lawful presence in the U.S., was passed into law in June 2012, Reyes quickly sent in her own application so that she could begin working to help pay for college. Then, inspired by their mother's efforts to empower the Latino community in their small hometown, Reyes and her sister began helping other high school students apply for DACA status.

In addition to helping people get employment, Reyes, who at the time was looking into coming to UNI, encouraged the high-school aged DACA hopefuls to consider continuing their education.

Reyes was a mentor and role model for these students, yet her road to college was still a bit bumpy. While she was still in the process of applying for DACA status, Reyes was pulled over by a police officer and didn't know why.

Soon after this incident, Reyes and her sister began hearing stories about other Latinos who were pulled over without knowing why. That's when the sisters decided to do something about it. They collected written testimonies from these individuals, translated the stories and presented the information to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

"Basically, we put a lot of pressure on the police station and it stopped," she said.

Her work with this case is what led Reyes to be selected for the 2013 ACLU of Iowa's Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award. Reyes received the award at the annual ACLU dinner, where she presented a speech and interacted with important figures in the civil rights movement. "It was nerve-racking but it was awesome," she said of the experience.

While professors at UNI had already been encouraging Reyes to go into law, the award has helped further motivate her. In fact, working with the ACLU inspired Reyes to look into civil liberties law.

"I never really knew what I wanted to do growing up, but working with the ACLU and seeing the kinds of things they do, I know that it's a worthwhile thing to do," she said.

In five years, Reyes hopes to be finishing law school and be on her way to a job where she can continue her advocacy work. "I really want to work at some form of a civil rights group," she said. "That's my ultimate goal."

Another big goal Reyes has for herself is to inspire others, because she knows from personal experience that it's possible to overcome any obstacle.

"With my circumstance, it did seem impossible. I cried so much in high school because I thought I wouldn't make it, but I realized I can do it," she said. "Everything is possible. Don't give up hope, because everything really is possible."