Maritza Perez: Celebrating a trailblazing University graduate
Award winner Maritza Perez has paved a path of success and distinction for all students to follow
In 2004, I enthusiastically accepted an offer for a position as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno because it was a public, land-grant institution. As a first-generation college graduate, I wanted my work to be rooted in helping other first-generation college students to graduate and achieve their dreams; this University was a place where I would have the privilege to work with many.
First-generation college students have unique traits, strengths, and experiences. They tend to be highly resourceful, tenacious, and committed to giving back to their communities while also opening paths for others to achieve their goals. I have yet to meet a first-generation college student who does not have these characteristics. These students inspire and mentor others; they are also often committed to advancing several causes in their communities.
Early in my career, I had the pleasure of having Maritza Pérez in several of my courses; she was a first-generation college student who majored in Spanish and Journalism. She was also an honors student, and I had the privilege of serving as the advisor for her award-winning honors thesis: "La New Mujer: How Economic Factors Redefine Gender Roles for Latina Immigrants" (2010). Maritza was very active in several important causes on campus: she was the founder and president of the Latino Student Advisory Board, founder and president of the ACLU Student Club, and CLA Senator for ASUN, among other activities. She was an outstanding student and won several important awards as an undergraduate: the Honors Thesis Research Award, CLA Dean's Exemplar Award, Outstanding Senior Award, and more.
Maritza was raised in Elko, NV by a single mom who migrated to the United States from Mexico to build a better life for her children and herself. Like my mother, Maritza's mother worked laboriously in the service industry to feed her children, keep a roof over their heads, and allow them to stay in school. Maritza's background largely resembled mine. Whereas our mothers didn't have the opportunity to go to school, they did everything possible to ensure that we could. They broke down barriers and opened a path for us to be successful in school.
People like Maritza, me, and countless others don't make it through school on our own. We have family members, teachers who went beyond the call of duty, people and organizations who awarded us scholarships because they believed in us, and friends who supported us in many ways. We never forget those who helped us achieve our goals, and I contend that our work remains rooted in helping others to achieve theirs while also giving back to our communities in meaningful ways.
I have followed Maritza's academic and career path since she graduated from the University in 2010; her list of accomplishments is lengthy and extraordinary. I recall a conversation we had back in 2008, when she shared with me her plans to participate in Teach for America and then go to law school. I remember thinking of Maritza as a future senator, Supreme Court justice, or president of this country. She is certainly on a path that could lead her to serve in one of these roles in the future. She accomplished everything she told me she would, and much more. After teaching in New Orleans and Atlanta, she was admitted to Berkeley School of Law and in 2015 obtained her JD. She has worked for the ACLU, NAACP, MALDEF, and other distinguished civil rights and social justice organizations. She has won several national awards as well. Currently working as a senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, she now has experience in criminal justice reform, employment law, immigration policy, education rights, and judicial nominations.
Naturally, when I received a message from Dean Debra Moddelmog requesting nominations of successful College of Liberal Arts alumni who could serve as a commencement speaker at our graduation ceremony this spring, Maritza was the first person to come to mind. I'm grateful the dean and President Johnson agreed. Maritza Pérez will participate in the CLA/Journalism/Orvis School of Nursing Commencement Ceremony on Thursday, May 16th. We know her story, accomplishments, and words will inspire many.
Alianza-the Chicanx, Latinx, and Indigenous faculty and staff association-has created a new award to recognize alumni who are breaking down barriers and opening paths for others: "The Alianza Trailblazing (Abriendo Caminos) Award." This award recognizes alumni who are assisting, empowering, and positively impacting others in outstanding and meaningful ways. It is with great honor and pride that we bestow the first Alianza Abriendo Caminos Award to Maritza Pérez.
Maritza, we celebrate you, we recognize your remarkable accomplishments, and we thank you for your commitment to breaking down barriers and opening paths for others. We know you will continue to help people achieve their dreams, and your work will help build better and stronger communities.