Vanessa Espinoza to be inducted into Iowa Latino Hall of Fame

Mike Brown

An Iowa State graduate student is being recognized at the state level for her work in the Latinx community.

Vanessa Espinoza, graduate student in the school of education, will be the first to receive the Latinx Youth Leadership Award and inducted into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame.

Established in 2017, the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame was made by the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs to honor and celebrate Latinx leaders in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

Espinoza is being recognized for her community work throughout her life, be it in the small Iowa town her family moved to when she was a toddler, the University of Northern Iowa, where she received her undergraduate degree or her time as a graduate student at Iowa State.

Espinoza was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, but moved to the United States when she was a toddler. From a young age, Espinoza said she was always taught to be action oriented.

“One of the messages I got growing up was, if you see a problem and it bothers you, don’t complain,” Espinoza said. “Do something about it.”

With this message, and the mentorship of family, community members and her high school counselor, Espinoza said she was inspired and empowered to take leadership roles in helping her community.

One of the first times Espinoza was driven to lead was when she taught Sunday school in high school. Espinoza said she remembered one student she had who could not read, but was trying to make his confirmation. She also noticed that many individuals in her community struggled with literacy, including her mother.

Espinoza applied for and received the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award, using it to start a class and create a space where she could teach Latinx people in her community to read and write in both English and Spanish.

Espinoza said empowering and meeting the needs of the people she taught was always the most important thing. She said she never approached helping these individuals as a savior, but wanted to empower them by being inclusive and helping them reach whatever goal they set for themselves.

“It was very important to empower the families that were there. For example, in my classes I made sure to allow kids to come,” Espinoza said. “I made sure to allow partners to come, and encourage a collaborative learning environment, rather than me lecturing to them because [lecturing] puts the attention to me rather than the student.”

Espinoza said while she may not have had an overwhelming amount of students at any one time, being able to empower those who did attend was what was most important, saying the experience was unforgettable.

One individual Espinoza remembered helping was a woman who could not read or write. Through the program, this woman was able to start signing her own name on her daughter’s school forms.

“She eventually learned how to write her name, and she was able to sign her [daughter’s] planner,” Espinoza said. “That was empowering in itself, being able to to be involved more in the life of your child.”

Since 2011, a select group of students have received a scholarship from Espinoza called the Vanessa Espinoza Scholarship.

Espinoza said she chooses the recipients based on their determination and ability to overcome adversity.

“I thought it was important to recognize individuals who may not always have the highest grades, but they demonstrate a spirit of overcoming adversity,” Espinoza said.

The scholarship is always given in cash, which allows the recipients to immediately put the money to use, Espinoza said.

While Espinoza said she cannot give large sums of money at the moment, it has not stopped her desire to assist these individuals who show this ability to overcome adversity, even if they may not have the best grades.

“Some people wait until they’re old to have a scholarship,” Espinoza said. “Why do we have to wait? Why can’t we do it now?”

As an undergrad at the University of Northern Iowa, Espinoza established “I too am UNI” as well as campus conversations shedding light on the experience of students of marginalized identities at the university.

After graduating, Espinoza spent time as an English as a second language (ESL) and Spanish teacher, and co-founded a nonprofit called Latinos for Washington. Espinoza said Latinos for Washington was originally founded due to a lack of Latinx representation in a local Latinx festival.

Latinos for Washington also brought in many outside services to meet the needs of local Latinx populations, as well as providing scholarships.

As Espinoza continued to teach, she realized some of her students had needs outside of the classroom that she was not able to meet.

“I was a teacher, but I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for my students,” Espinoza said. “I was mostly teaching a subject, and I couldn’t ignore all the other things I was seeing or hearing.”

This inspired Espinoza to pursue graduate studies at Iowa State. She was placed in TRiO, and now also works with Liz Mendez-Shannon, diversity and inclusion project director in Hispanic/Latinx affairs.

TRiO is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a student outreach and service program made to assist low-income students, first-generation students, disabled students and any other students who may have backgrounds which present challenges when pursuing higher education.

Espinoza worked with Mendez-Shannon to organize a scholarship which did not require students to be a United States citizen, and to raise money for the scholarship they helped organize the DACA 5k in early 2018.

Espinoza also participated in the organization of the “Know Your Rights” campus conversations for people who may be undocumented, recipients of temporary protected status or recipients of DACA.

Mendez-Shannon said she admired Espinoza’s leadership and her ability to persevere.

“What I love about Vanessa is her constant positive energy and her will to succeed,” Mendez-Shannon said.

Mendez-Shannon said Espinoza is always able to see a need and find a solution.

The “Know Your Rights” campus conversation held in the spring of 2018, which included an intimate discussion for people affected by the discontinuation of temporary protective status, was originally voiced by Espinoza, according to Mendez-Shannon.

“She finds a path when we think there isn’t any,” Mendez-Shannon said.