Latinas in Government & Law

March is Women’s History Month. sonia-sotomayorTo celebrate, Latinitas has decided to feature the wonderful and revolutionary women in history who have increased the representation of Latinas in government, politics and law.

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latina Justice appointed to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. She was born on June 25, 1954 in Bronx, New York. She is a descendent of Puerto Rican parents. She graduated summa com laude from Princeton University in 1976. She  went to Yale Law School where she attained her J.D. in 1979. Aside from working as an Assistant to the Attorney General, she was an avid participant for fundraising for funds that benefited the Puerto Rican society in New York. From 1992-1998, she served as a Federal Judge for the Southern District of New York. In 1998, she got promoted to as Court of Appeals Judge for the Second Circuit. That was until 2009, when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Justice for the United States. From there, Congress confirmed the president’s request at a  vote of 68–31.

Hilda Solis
Hilda Solis is a politician who has membership in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She was born on October 20, 1957, in Los Angeles, California to a Nicaraguan mother and a Mexican father. She obtained her Bachelors of Arts in Political Science from the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Solis later received her Masters of Public Administration from the University of Southern California. She kept on climbing up the political later until in 2000 Hilda Solis defeated the Democratic incumbent and she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is the first Latina to have ever serve for the U.S. Senate. From 2009-2013 she was the United States Secretary of Labor, meaning that she took care of any laws involving worker unions.

Linda Chavez-Thompson
Linda Chavez-Thompson is an Mexican-American radio personality and commentator. She was born on June 17, 1947 to American parents. She is a descendant of Mexican immigrants who had moved to New Mexico in the 17th century. In 1975, she was employed as an editor for the publications of one of the largest Education Unions in the United States, “American Federation of Teachers”. Chavez is a Republican and during President Ronald Reagan’s administration she became the highest-ranking woman serving as Staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. During George W. H. Bush’s administration, she became the first Latina to ever be nominated to the United States Cabinet as the Secretary of Labor. After her time as a politician, she has become a FOX News analyst.

Career Spotlight: Assistant Instructor

booksCarolyn Rhea Drapes is an instructor in the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), she holds a PhD and imparts English and business writing classes.

What are some of your job responsibilities?

As a graduate student, I seek to use the dissertation process and time to create new knowledge and collaborate with my peers. Moreover, as an Assistant Instructor, I am tasked with gaining teaching experience as an RWS instructor of undergraduate rhetoric and writing, technical writing, and business writing courses.

Describe your educational background and how it helped you prepare for your career?

After first graduating from Loretto, I entered UTEP immediately, but then left school to help raise a family and work. Later, when my younger daughter entered high school, I re-enrolled at UTEP and completed a BA in Creative Writing. I then entered the RWS program and completed a MA in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, and am now in its doctoral program. All said whether in the workplace or traditional classroom situations, my personal and work experiences have enabled me to bring a unique perspective to the classroom. In addition, working as a corporate Webmaster, visual specialist, and social media maven from the mid-90s through today has helped me to use this eclectic skill set which is perfect for teaching. Overall, I see this as a natural progression.

How did you find your current job?

Previously, all positions with the exception my position with El Paso Natural Gas Company (which was found through an agency) was obtain with the help of friends and associates. My current job differs in that it was acquired from being accepted into the graduate program. As an Assistant Instructor, I am assigned courses to teach each semester, including summer classes when the opportunity arises.

How did you prepare for this career?

To prepare to teach in the program, I first earned the required number of graduate level course credits, which included a pedagogy course. This training also included shadowing an experienced instructor within the program. That semester I attended her class and observed others while also attending my graduate courses. Before the end of that semester, I was helping lecture. Throughout the semester, my teaching mentor and I normed grades and discussed various issues that a teacher is likely to encounter in the classroom. Currently, I attend several meetings each semester with those in the program; in these, we have the opportunity to learn and explore various teaching methods. Continuing professional education in the field ensures that our camaraderie remain vital, informed, and progressive.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Helping students gain their own set of writing and research skills is always important. However, a favorite aspect is appreciating their hard work and why they seek to remain in school and work towards a specific goal. Each goal is as different as the students I teach. This inspires me as I enjoy hearing about their lives and listening to their stories. This helps me understand their situation, which allows me to encourage them to use their current and past experiences when earning their degree. Their reasons for furthering their education help me immensely. Each day in the classroom, I learn new things, and this helps me improve my own writing and research methods.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

An important challenge is to balance my research and writing with teaching and, of course, to make time for my family. My family supports me, which is vitally important to my teaching and working towards my degree. Without them, my life would be quite empty and more difficult to navigate.

What impact does your profession have on young Latinas?

We as graduate instructors seek to help all students better understand the importance of working towards a goal, whether it is the goal of an assignment, or the goal of completing their degree. We support their aims and goals, no matter the degree. Rarely do I ever see a student that is undeclared or uncertain about what they want to do with their lives; this shows me how focused our student population is. Latinas, as are all students, whether young or returning, are valued greatly at this institution. To that end, we are given the opportunity to impart our knowledge and to positively support them.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

Photography, drawing, and writing have been life-long passions. I have found that I tend to capture images surrounding my life each day and then seek to manipulate and use them creatively. Even if I am unable to leave campus or home, I find I am constantly composing, whether with images or texts. I also like to read and explore social media trends.

Does living in a border city make you more aware of Hispanic issues?

Of course. My entire life has been a voyage between cultures and economic situations, even when my family and I left El Paso for life in Northern New Mexico for a time. Moreover, as a child of and partner in bicultural marriages, I find we all walk a fine line between various communities constantly. It is interesting to view how each group works with, for, and against each other. We blend and separate constantly, which makes it difficult to find and work for positive change for the whole.

What advice would you give to help girls to prepare for a job like this?

I would say that young women of all ages should think about what it is that they wish to accomplish and then, how to best attain that goal or sets of goals. While the path may shift or change, each student, each woman has a great opportunity to enrich their lives by completing their degree and stepping out into the wider world ready to make a positive impact. If they seek a graduate degree, they should understand that they would enter not only a scholarly environment for themselves, but also learning one for her and for others as well. She will need to understand that she is there to share her skills and knowledge so that the next group of young Latinas can learn and grow positively from the experiences she will share with them.

Leading Latina: Rosa Rios Valdez

Written by Prakriti Bhardwa

rosa_rios_valdezThe passion that Rosa Rios Valdez has for economic development is astounding. For the last 24 years, Rosa has worked tirelessly to build BCL of Texas, a statewide nonprofit, from the ground up, helping establish BCL as one of Texas’s most prominent lenders and non-profit organizations.

She was there from the beginning, when there were only two employees in a former bank building, to today when that huge office now seems a little too small for the fast growing staff. By the time Rosa Rios Valdez was asked to lead BCL of Texas and become CEO, she had already had many years of experience in economic development.

By closely shadowing her managers and mentors, Rosa was able to gain the real life experience that many young adults lack and ultimately hope for. “I realized that I liked learning about entrepreneurs, learning about their business and their stories, and about their expansions,” said Rosa. “I was very lucky that all my bosses pushed me to take every opportunity that came my way. They also provided me with many ways to show and build my leadership skills in the economic development field.”

It wasn’t Rosa’s idea to start BCL of Texas, it was just something that came her way. She had been working in the economic development branch of a Central Texas utilities company, Rosa noticed that there wasn’t much of an SBA loan presence in these small rural towns she was visiting. After making note of this, Rosa mentioned this to the administration. They listened to her observation and followed up with her.

“They called me in a meeting in the office and pushed an envelope towards me,” said Rosa. “Inside the envelope was an application to start a small CDC. They told me that I was right, they didn’t have a presence in these small towns and they wanted me to lead this new venture. I gave the envelope back; it wasn’t something I had envisioned myself doing. I thanked them for the opportunity. However, I thought about it, and well, that was 24 years ago. It’s been very good.”

Throughout the years, the job hasn’t gotten any easier, but Rosa doesn’t mind. Being available to families, communities, businesses, small towns and civic leaders are all in a day’s work. “With BCL of Texas, we were regional and now we are state-wide,” said Rosa.

“So I would say that my job is harder now. We have hundreds of communities that we are responsible for assisting and huge regions of Texas that we serve. So the job is extremely demanding and you need to know and correctly represent the priorities of each of these small towns that BCL serves.” Rosa gets her inspiration from not only the people she surrounds herself with, but mainly through her passion for helping others and her commitment to helping local businesses and families. “I want to be a leader to the people around me and I want them to see the dedication that I put into the projects and people that come to us,” said Rosa. “I want to inspire and help them see how important it is to be dedicated to a cause and to push through any difficulties they may have.”

Being CEO isn’t a job that just anyone can do. The leader and face of the company has to have many different skill sets and has to be very adaptable to their surroundings and the people that they interact with. This tractability is something Rosa feels is important for a successful company. “You have to be extremely organized and you never know what a customer will need, what kind of call is going to come in,” said Rosa. “You always have to make sure that you know everything about what’s going on with the company. You have to be very focused on deadlines. You also have to be a great listener.” Another thing that Rosa appreciates is her staff. While her job continues to become more work-load heavy, she knows that she can rely on the people around her to pick up projects and things that she may not be able to. “What makes it work and the factor that pulls everything together is having skilled staff that can perform in all lines of business,” said Rosa. “A great staff can provide quality customer service and skills to help all BCL customers. That’s what makes the job a little easier.”

Being accustomed to such a fast paced and busy lifestyle, it seems that Rosa never has time to slow down. She never envisioned being CEO would mean having a job that carried over the 8-5 time frame. Working longer hours gets tough, but it’s something that Rosa is passionate about so she doesn’t necessarily mind. “I left a big organization with wonderful benefits to join a much smaller nonprofit,” said Rosa. “But the mission and the cause fit me. I have no regrets. It’s been wonderful.”

Career Spotlight: Chief Communications Officer

Photo Credit:  http://www.congreso.net/

Photo Credit:
http://www.congreso.net/

Name:
Yvette A. Nuñez
Position & Title:
Chief Communications Officer
Employer:
Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Inc.
City & State:
Philadelphia, PA
What are some of your job responsibilities?
I lead our $24M multi service non-profit organization’s fundraising, communications, special events, corporate relations, community relations, civic engagement and volunteer management efforts; serve as member of executive leadership team overseeing a staff of 4. I manage the agency’s Corporate Advisory Council, featuring Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies as well as manage external vendors including PR agency, photographers, design firms, and promotional products companies. I develop strategic leadership communications, including speeches, press releases, Op-Eds, and content for brochures, annual reports, and electronic media. I also serve as the agency’s social media manager and design agency collateral as needed. Congreso is one of the nation’s Top Hispanic Non-profits in the Nation, and I serve as liaison to national and corporate partnerships.
What is your educational background? Describe your college experience and how it helped you prepare for your career.
I have an undergraduate degree in journalism. In college, I was the first Latina to serve as Editor in Chief of the school newspaper, where I managed a team of 50+ freelance writers, photographers, designers, etc. This experience gave me a good understanding for the deadline-driven pace of a newsroom, and later as I became a non-profit communications professional, I benefited from the skills in management, deadlines, and multitasking that it helped enhance. I also worked as a clerical supervisor and a legal assistant…AT THE SAME TIME!
How did you find your current job?
I built a strong network and great reputation for the work I was doing in the non-profit and government sectors. I had previously worked with the agency as a partner, and when it came under new leadership, a position became available requiring my exact combination of skills.
What did you do to prepare for this career?
You can do PR anywhere. You should merge it with something you’re passionate about. I love being Latina and working in the Latino community. I am blessed to have the opportunity to use my skills for the benefit of a great organization that helps 16,000 people a year. I am not a social worker, but I love promoting what our staff and clients are doing together for the betterment of Latino Philadelphia.To prepare for this career, I had a natural talent for writing, and an upbringing that predisposed me to prioritizing the voices of poor people of color.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love any day that I get to spend with our clients, especially the older adults who come by to visit. It’s an immediate fill my bucket with love kind of day. I also just LOVE bringing an event/fundraiser to fruition. It takes a lot of planning, hustling, visioning, and negotiating. But when it all comes together (and it always does) is the best part.
What is the most challenging part of your job
I think the most challenging is not being able to be all things to all people. When you wear a lot of different hats, sometimes they tip over and you just can’t manage it. Learning to manage my time, expectations, and diverse interests are tricky, but doable.
What advice would you give to help a girl prepare for a job like yours?
I would say that you have to love to write, understand the story and/or event from the end user’s perspective before the story is written and before the event is planned, and find something your passionate about.
What do you do for fun when you aren’t working?
Go on dates with my kids, travel and read.

Career Spotlight: Chief School Officer

Danna Diaz 977301_10201231510615653_278848363_o
Position & Title: Chief School Officer, Area One Superintendent
Employer: El Paso ISD
City & State: El Paso

What are some of your job responsibilities?
I serve elementary and middle schools that feed into four high schools. They are Bowie, Coronado, El Paso and Jefferson/Silva. I work with principals and central office to ensure students are learning in the classroom and that teachers have the tools they need to facilitate instruction.My experience working with students from diverse economic backgrounds and my bilingual skills have provided me with the tools and skills to engage all stakeholders in the educational process. Specifically, as a leader, I respond to the needs of stakeholders by establishing positive relations with the school and community and working with the members of the school district. In addition, I promote effective school communication and build coalitions to support the entire learning community.

What is your educational background? Describe your college experience and how it helped you prepare for your career.
I am the first in my family to attend college. I received my Associates in General Studies from Central Texas College, Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Masters of Science, Mid-Management and Superintendent Certifications from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Administration from The University of Texas at Austin.My personal and educational experiences have helped me understand the resilience and persistence that is needed to succeed in today’s public schools. I know how important it is to receive an education and break the cycle of poverty, addiction and domestic violence. My passion is to make a difference in the lives of students and families.

How did you find your current job?
The position was posted by Proact, a national search firm. I applied for the position. I was screened by Proact personnel and interviewed three times by the Superintendent, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources and a member of the EPISD Board of Managers.

What did you do to prepare for this career?
I started my career as a bilingual teacher, assistant principal, principal and central office administrator. In addition to my professional experiences and education, I am a graduate of Proact Supes Academy, Center for Courage and Renewal, Academy for Leaders, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendent’s (ALAS) Superintendent Leadership Academy and the California Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALSA) Mentoring Program. My professional experiences, my education and the four learning programs prepared me for the position I have now.

What is your favorite part of your job?
I love working with the principals, teachers, parents and students of Area One. They are smart, intelligent and a group of caring individuals. My days are filed with conversations with them that impact the schools academically and/or operationally.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is when you find out a student is hurt in an accident or in the hospital. I know deep down inside they want to be in school. All I can do is pray!

What advice would you give to help a girl prepare for a job like yours?
My advice would be to love what you are learning. If you want to be a teacher, start there. Keep going to school to prepare you for the next level. Don’t stop learning. Keep going!

What do you do for fun when you are not working?
I love spending time with my family, going to the movies, working out in the gym and participating in yoga practice.

 

Danna Diaz
Position & Title:
Chief School Officer, Area One Superintendent
Employer:
El Paso ISD
City & State
El Paso
What are some of your job responsibilities?
I serve elementary and middle schools that feed into four high schools. They are Bowie, Coronado, El Paso and Jefferson/Silva. I work with principals and central office to ensure students are learning in the classroom and that teachers have the tools they need to facilitate instruction.My experience working with students from diverse economic backgrounds and my bilingual skills have provided me with the tools and skills to engage all stakeholders in the educational process. Specifically, as a leader, I respond to the needs of stakeholders by establishing positive relations with the school and community and working with the members of the school district. In addition, I promote effective school communication and build coalitions to support the entire learning community.
What is your educational background? Describe your college experience and how it helped you prepare for your career.
I am the first in my family to attend college. I received my Associates in General Studies from Central Texas College, Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Masters of Science, Mid-Management and Superintendent Certifications from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Administration from The University of Texas at Austin.My personal and educational experiences have helped me understand the resilience and persistence that is needed to succeed in today’s public schools. I know how important it is to receive an education and break the cycle of poverty, addiction and domestic violence. My passion is to make a difference in the lives of students and families.
How did you find your current job?
The position was posted by Proact, a national search firm. I applied for the position. I was screened by Proact personnel and interviewed three times by the Superintendent, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources and a member of the EPISD Board of Managers.
What did you do to prepare for this career?
I started my career as a bilingual teacher, assistant principal, principal and central office administrator. In addition to my professional experiences and education, I am a graduate of Proact Supes Academy, Center for Courage and Renewal, Academy for Leaders, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendent’s (ALAS) Superintendent Leadership Academy and the California Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALSA) Mentoring Program. My professional experiences, my education and the four learning programs prepared me for the position I have now.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love working with the principals, teachers, parents and students of Area One. They are smart, intelligent and a group of caring individuals. My days are filed with conversations with them that impact the schools academically and/or operationally.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is when you find out a student is hurt in an accident or in the hospital. I know deep down inside they want to be in school. All I can do is pray!
What advice would you give to help a girl prepare for a job like yours?
My advice would be to love what you are learning. If you want to be a teacher, start there. Keep going to school to prepare you for the next level. Don’t stop learning. Keep going!
What do you do for fun when you are not working?
I love spending time with my family, going to the movies, working out in the gym and participating in yoga practice.

episd_logo

Without Dance, What’s the Pointe?

Photo Credit: Sofia Villarreal

Photo Credit: Sofia Villarreal

From my first performance in a hula girl ensemble at the age of two, to my most recent dance endeavor as a part of a hip-hop crew in college, dance has been an inextricable part of my life for eighteen years now. When I reflect on my childhood and young adult life before college, most memories consist of time spent in the dance studio. Hours spent during weekdays, weekends, and sometimes even holidays giving blood, sweat and tears to a performance was extremely fulfilling.

I was thrilled with the adrenaline rush that accompanied being on stage, twirling and bending to the music. The physical demands of dance have always been an exhilarating challenge that I have cherished. Not only is it physically demanding, but it makes for an expensive and time-consuming pursuit. I have the privilege of being raised by wonderful parents who have unwavering support for my pursuits, and dance was no exception.  All throughout middle and high school, I attended several ballet classes a week and was a part of an annual Nutcracker Ballet performance that was the highlight of my Christmas vacation. For a while before I knew which college I would attend, I greatly considered being a professional dancer. My senior year of high school I joined a pre-professional contemporary dance company called Nudo Piedi, and it was the most fulfilling and enriching experience of my life. I was the youngest in the group of an all female dance company and I grew as a dancer more in this year alone, than in the countless classes I had taken before.

As college application deadlines came around, I realized that although dance was a definite part of my future, it was not going to be my future. This realization arrived with a bit of heartbreak as I said goodbye to my dance peers, the wonderful women of Nudo Piedi and especially my instructor, whom I had grown very close to. I feared that college would be all consuming and essentially too difficult to manage with a dance passion, but I found a way to make it work. Although I have only taken a couple of ballet classes since then, my pursuit of dance as something essential to my life has brought wonderful opportunities my way. I am now a member of the Trinity University dance team, the Prowlers, as well as a member of the hip-hop dance troupe, LoonE Crew. Before college, I had never experienced anything outside of ballet, contemporary, and the occasional jazz class. Joining a hip-hop crew was something entirely out of my comfort zone, but it has been an incredibly fun experience. In essence, I am thankful for being lucky enough to pursue a passion that has been so incredibly rewarding, and in which every minute spent in the studio has paid off in more ways than one.

Politically Active Latinas

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) is moving forward several strategies to help empower the Latino community. Through trainings, outreach and advocacy efforts, NHLA works to identify and support entry-level through Cabinet-level candidates pursuing presidential appointments. They have been involved in supporting the rise of several Latino professionals now serving in some of the highest ranks in government, including U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta and Small Business Administration Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet.

NHLA_Logo_Vertical_Hi_Res

NHLA has also launched LatinasRepresent, a joint initiative of Political Parity and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, to call out the lack of elected Latina leaders and change the political landscape to reflect all Americans. Though there are over 25 million Latinas in the U.S., just 109 of the 8,236 seats in state and national political office are held by Latinas. The project stems from research that involved interviews, national polls, and focus groups.

Since the launch in February of 2014, NHLA has hosted LatinasRepresent forums in Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C. and San Antonio to spotlight Latina leaders and to embolden more Latinas to pursue public service leadership roles. NHLA has a digital campaign with the latinasrepresent.org web site; over 70 videos on the LatinasRepresent Youtube Channel, Google+ Hangouts with Latina leaders including journalist Maria Hinojosa, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and civil rights legend Dolores Huerta. Conversations and stories of inspiring Latinas are also regularly shared on Twitter, via the hashtag #LatinasRepresent.

When asked why Latinas are underrepresented in high-government positions, Melody Gonzalez, Presidential Appointments Program Director at NHLA, said, “I think Latinas are natural-born leaders. The problem isn’t necessarily that Latinas don’t want to serve in leadership roles or run for office — the problem is that we need to be more intentional about tackling institutional barriers and about building alliances so that Latinas can be better poised to run and win…I’ve been really inspired to see that in every city we go to, nearly 200 women come out to support the LatinasRepresent event — and many of them are voicing their interest in one day running for office. The more we lift up stories of successful Latina elected officials and candidates, and the more communities come together to take action on this element of underrepresentation, the more we’ll start to see the political landscape change.”

But what about those Latinitas that feel they are not ready to run for office but want to be involved with positive change in our community? Melody had some great advice for us as well.

“There are so many ways for Latinas of all ages to make an impact and become involved in the political process,” said Melody, “Register to vote, make sure that every eligible voter around you is registered to vote, and make sure the circle of voters you know actually show up on election day to vote.”

Other great ways for Latinitas to bring change to their community are:

  • Intern and work for elected officials in your local government, at your state capitol, and in the U.S. Congress.
  • Ask a community leader or elected official to serve as a mentor.
  • Volunteer, work and/or fundraise for the campaign of a candidate you believe in.
  • Explore paid internships and careers in the federal government through usajobs.gov.
  • Apply for professional and leadership development programs organized by great organizations like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Heritage Foundation, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Council of La Raza Lideres Program, National Hispana Leadership Institute, US Hispanic Leadership Institute, Voto Latino, and others. A great new online resource to explore for programs and scholarship opportunities is https://www.chcinextopp.net/.
  • Be intentional about building a network of real, lasting relationships with people who support you. Write down a list of your leadership goals and talk to your circle of mentors and supporters about your goals. Ask your support network for their help and ideas to help you achieve those goals.
  • Consider running for office — and encourage wise Latinas around you to run for office.

If you are interested in learning more about NHLA, visit: http://nationalhispanicleadership.org

Latina Spotlight: Cadet Jessica Soto

Photo Credit: http://www.elpasotimes.com

Photo Credit: http://www.elpasotimes.com

She is a fighter, a believer, a college athlete, an Army Cadet, and she is a Latina.  She is one of the few to take on a journey that most, if not all, would consider to be rare and irrational.

Cadet Jessica Soto was born on April 29, 1995 in El Paso, Texas. She grew up in the small town of San Elizario, Texas where she developed into the multi-talented young lady that she is now.  Growing up she dodged all the negativity that was thrown at her, which only caused her to become more determined and focused than those around her.

She is one of the few women to have been accepted into one of the nation’s most prestigious military academies known as West Point, which is located in West Point, New York-approximately 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.

West Point Military Academy (USMA) only takes in the nation’s most outstanding students.  Not only do the students have to have exceptional grades to be admitted, but they also select students who are physically fit and have proof of leadership skills.  Students that are accepted into the academy receive fully paid scholarships and a monthly income.  Alex Hinojosa, an El Paso Times journalist,  reported that West Point received about 15,000 applications in 2013, and only 194 of the 1,200 cadets that were accepted were women.

Jess, as her closest friends call her, was one of the two women from El Paso to get admitted. Latinitas sat down with Cadet Soto to learn more about her inspirational story.

Q: What can you tell me about yourself-family, growing up, and achievements?

A: “I was always around boys because I was the youngest of three and I was the only girl.  My parents are very traditional, typical Mexican parents; they have an old school mentality and they always thought I should clean up after my brothers, and, of course, I just never had any of it…I grew up around boys, always playing sports and I like to think that it was sports that taught me a lot of what I learned about myself.  It taught me how to be a leader and how to work hard for what I want, to ultimately be the best in anything.  Not saying that I was the best, but that was always what I aimed for.  I focused a lot of my time on becoming faster, stronger than anyone because I wanted to get out of here and play elsewhere.  I thought sports were my only way out, which is why I tried my best in school, to sell myself to colleges and universities.  I’d like to say that my biggest accomplishment has been an impact on younger girls that I played with, having someone look up to you and try to emulate you is…priceless.”

Q: At what point in your life did you decide that West Point was for you?

A: ”There came a point in my high school career when I realized that I didn’t want to play in college.  I loved sports, but it became more of a job to me because of the people around me who EXPECTED me to play D1 .  I read a book called “Battle Dress” by Amy Efaw and it was based on a girl’s experience of being a cadet in basic training at West Point.  Two weeks later, one of my teachers had a presentation about West Point and, as a second semester Junior, it became important to me to begin the application process.  At first I only applied because [after] hearing how hard it was to get in I became curious to know if I was good enough to go there.  As I became more engulfed, I realized West Point was the perfect place for me.  Soon enough, no other school compared to West Point so I didn’t apply anywhere else.”

Q: What was your reaction when you read the acceptance letter?

A: ”It took me a long time to receive my appointment because of my asthma. I was medically disqualified for months.  It took so many doctor visits and pulmonary exams to finally get a waiver.  The state senator denied me a nomination and you need one to even be considered as a candidate, but Reyes gave it to me before he left office.  When I finally got it, I was the happiest in the world!  I felt like all the weight was off my shoulders and all that stress had finally paid off.  I still remember the exact date, April 16, 2013.”

Q: What was going through your head when you had to say goodbye to your loved ones?

A: “I was so scared.  I began questioning if I had what it takes to make it through there.  My volleyball coach told me the day I left, ‘Don’t you dare come back here without a diploma in your hand.  You owe it to these girls that look up to you and this community that has given you everything.’  I just didn’t want to let anyone down, but I was excited and focused.  I felt ready to take on anything that would get thrown at me, the same way I took on any other challenge I had ever faced before… with a strong mind, leaving it all in God’s hands.”

Q: What challenges have you faced since your arrival at West Point, and are there any other Latinas that attend as well?

A: “I got made fun of for lacking military knowledge, and my accent was also made fun of.  People were very ignorant about my Latin culture.  I struggled academically; being a woman in an institution [whose population is] 14% women is hard.  We are objectified even though they advocate equality.  The profession itself is tough for women.  I had two major surgeries in one semester because of rugby.  There are few Latinas there, but they aren’t as culturally sound as I am.  They didn’t grow up in a border town, some don’t even speak a hint of Spanish, and if they do it’s very broken.”

Q: What advice do you give to young Latinas?

A: “My advice would be to have no limits, you have a dream, you go out, and you make it a reality.  There will always be people who will tell you that it is out of your reach, but no one can set limits as to what you can accomplish but yourself.  Step outside of your comfort zone, that’s where the magic happens.  It takes courage to stand up for yourself, to go out and do it.  Sometimes even those closest to you will think it’s impossible, but if you have the right intentions and the Lord sees it fit and if you work hard and never settle, then there is no saying what you cannot accomplish.  Once you accomplish that then you make a new goal, the key is to never be content with yourself or be complacent.  Never let your gender or race be a setback, embrace it and use it as a motivator.”

Cadet Soto is the perfect example of the American Dream. She broke both gender and cultural barriers in one of the most tedious professions, and was admitted to a highly prestigious school rare to women.  Jessica Soto is proof that if you’re passionate and determined enough, your dreams will become a reality.  She is an inspiration to not only Latinas but women in general looking to protect the country they call home.

Leading Latina: Melody Gonzales

Photo Credit: http://www.linkedin.com/in/melodygonzales

Photo Credit: Melody Gonzales

Melody Gonzales is the Presidential Appointments Program Director for the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 36 of the pre-eminent Latino civil rights, non-profit and advocacy organizations in the nation. Originally from San Diego, CA, Melody attended the University of California San Diego.

When she was growing up, she knew that she always wanted to work in a field where she could help make a difference for her community and one of her biggest obstacles in college was figuring out how to accomplish that goal.

“One day…I saw a flyer on a bulletin board on campus about the Asian American Journalism Association’s summer program for journalism students. I applied for their program and spent an amazing week in Chicago being mentored and trained by professional journalists. I went on to participate in similar trainings with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and doors opened for me to gain wonderful internships in the news industry,” said Melody.

It was programs such as these, the exposure to the field of communications, and to people working hard to lift up social issues which led her to a key turning point that helped place her on her public service career path.

After graduating from the University of California San Diego, Melody spent two years working in San Diego with the local NBC news affiliate as a news writer and with the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, helping manage a leadership program for local community leaders. She also worked for the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as General Manager, promoting tourism for San Diego. While she loved the work she was involved with, Melody became intrigued with the idea of going to graduate school when she was in D.C. and came across a brochure that described Georgetown University’s Master of Public Policy program as “a program for do-gooders.”

Melody became more and more excited as she read about the faculty members and students who were working in the nation’s capital as agents of change in all sorts of fields. She took a risk and put all of her eggs in one basket, applied for Georgetown’s graduate program in policy and was thrilled to have been accepted. At Georgetown she focused her studies on international policy development, had exposure to world leaders, and was able to study abroad at Oxford University.

During her Master’s program, she was able to conduct a quantitative research thesis on immigration and crime to help debunk the myth that immigrants are criminals. It was during her work on this thesis, at a point when immigration reform was being debated in the U.S. Senate and communities were mobilizing with rallies across the nation, that Melody decided she needed to be more directly involved in politics. She went on to work for Congressman Xavier Becerra in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years and for several political campaigns including for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Fast forward to present times, Melody currently works for The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA). NHLA mobilizes to advance key policy priorities that impact the Latino community, such as immigration reform, economic empowerment, and more. She is the director of NHLA’s Latino Appointment Program, which launched in January of 2013. The program is designed to help improve Latino representation in government to ensure our voices and perspectives are integrated in key policy-making positions.

For more information on NHLA, visit http://nationalhispanicleadership.org.

Latina Lawyers: You Can Do It!

gavelHow many times has it been said, “Law school is so hard”? The chances are probably several times. Like any form of higher education, law school is a challenging commitment that requires hard work and discipline. Instead of letting naysayers put ideas of “you can’t” in your head, think “you can”!

Latinas are underrepresented in the field of law and that is something that needs to change. According to the 2010 census, only 3.7% of all licensed lawyers in the United States are Hispanic, so just imagine how few Hispanic females are in that 3.7%. We are all young, passionate and hard working women who would be amazing in the court room. If you’re wondering why law school would be of any interest to you, just think about the issues you are passionate about. Children? Sports? Immigration? Almost every aspect of our society requires an attorney at some point.

“Sometimes I think about going to law school because I know it would really help me in my career,” said Andrea Calderon, sophomore psychology student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Having a law degree to your name automatically sets you apart in the professional field. Being a Latina lawyer sets them more apart. There are so many benefits that come from being a law school graduate and giving it a thought would not hurt.

“Even though this might sound dumb, shows like Scandal make me actually want to go to law school,” Calderon said.

There are several different motivations for why someone would want to become a lawyer. Whether a chica is inspired by shows like Scandal or even the judges on tv, the most important thing is for her to know she is capable of doing the same thing. The preliminary steps to getting a law degree are to work hard in school and do well on the LSAT, the standardized test that measures one’s preparedness for law school. Once those steps are locked in, applying for law school is next!

Audrey Medrano, sophomore at Westside High School, said she has been thinking about law school as a possibility in her future. She hopes her athletic skills in volleyball and soccer can get a scholarship to undergraduate school so she can start saving for law school.

“I love to argue with people and prove my point,” Medrano said. “I always win arguments with my dad and one day I will show him I can do it professionally.”

Arguing is one part of being an abogada, and it’s safe to say Latinas love to voice their opinions. But before a chica can even get into law school, she needs to be focusing on her grades since high school. Getting into law school is a competitive process and Latinas need to give their competitors a taste of their hard work! Sharpen those GPAs and focus on what you’re passionate about, and law school will be something that you can achieve!

For more information on how to become a lawyer, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm

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