"One day, I hope to become a federal judge and ultimately, a Supreme Court Justice."
These were some of the first words we heard from Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez during her freshman year at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2011, she burst onto the accomplished-student scene with her winning football throws during the 2011 Dr Pepper Tuition Throw Competition at the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. After personal coaching and training from then Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, she nailed the football toss and walked away with a $100,000 scholarship for her college education.
"I can never forget the tremendous, life-altering impact that Dr Pepper had on my ability to afford my undergraduate education as a low-income, first-generation student," Padilla-Rodriguez said. "Many of my wildest dreams came true at the University of Nevada, Reno and for that, I am forever indebted to this beautiful institution."
After four years at the University, Padilla-Rodriguez will walk across the stage Saturday, May 16, 2015, earning a dual Honors degree from the College of Liberal Arts in history and philosophy, with a minor in ethnic/Latino studies.
As the student with the top grade-point average in the college and having met a number of academic and extracurricular criteria, she was named a Senior Scholar. And, one student in the entire Nevada System of Education throughout the state is bestowed the honor of the undergraduate Regents' Scholar Award, which this year went to Padilla-Rodriguez, along with a $5,000 stipend.
Padilla-Rodriguez was also honored with the Dean's Award for Research and the Henry Albert Public Service Award.
"I have been privileged enough to have had my undergraduate education funded by various local, state and national scholarships," she said. "I've had the opportunity to advance my intellectual curiosities and gain meaningful professional development."
In so many things that have seemed unreachable, Padilla-Rodriguez has shattered the glass ceiling.
Also in the first interview with Padilla-Rodriguez three-and-a-half years ago, she said she wanted to attend law school and become a lawyer. This fall, she moves to New York City to begin her PhD program at Columbia University.
"I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to continue my passion for migration studies and law as a history PhD student at Columbia University and to be advised by THE Mae Ngai," Padilla-Rodriguez said. "I will be moving to New York City to begin the PhD part of my joint JD-PhD. The University ultimately allowed me to actualize my dreams without impediment."
Leading a life of honor and advocacy
After her selection as a Senior Scholar this spring, Padilla-Rodriguez reflected on her experiences and accomplishments:
"I've been an advocate for the Latino community as an intern for Mi Familia Vota, the president of the Latino Student Advisory Board, and an undergraduate researcher at the University's Latino Research Center. In these roles, I have lobbied for immigrants' rights at the state and federal levels; founded a scholarship mentoring initiative and planned the inaugural Nevada Latino Leadership Conference (held on campus last month); and completed grant-funded research."
Her impressive string of accomplishments may have officially been marked when she graduated and earned the title of valedictorian from Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas in 2011, overcoming a time when she and her family were, at one time, homeless.
"I realized that my financial situation, and the plights of other Latinos, could be improved by onstage and academic success. Therefore, in high school, I qualified for national theatre competitions, graduated top of my class and became one of the few Latinos admitted to the University of Nevada, Reno Honors Program."
Once in Reno, Padilla-Rodriguez co-founded a youth theatre program called Spotlight: Academy for Young Actors, at the non-profit Good Luck Macbeth Theater, and secured partnerships to teach at-risk Latino youth in the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba and Chile. She studied abroad while in Costa Rica and Cuba with the University Studies Abroad Consortium program.
In Chile, she interned for the National Congress of Chile where she conducted research on Chilean immigration policy and attended an international conference on the rights of immigrants. She was also chosen to present her research project at the 18th Annual Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C., showcasing her undergraduate research work last year.
In an interview last spring, Padilla-Rodriguez talked about her motivation and goals:
"Due to my upbringing and aspirations, I strongly believe federal judges should understand the needs of low-income and minority populations," she said. "Like Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, whose story has inspired me, I too welcome the chance to work on issues crucial to the community in which I was raised."
Her academic and community-service accomplishments led Glamour magazine to name her a "2014 Top Ten College Woman" last spring.
Furthermore, Padilla-Rodriguez learned in a surprise presentation by University President Marc Johnson that she had been named a Truman Scholar, considered one of the country's most prestigious undergraduate scholarships, and the sixth at the University, earning her a $30,000 scholarship.
"The overwhelming amount of support I received from President Marc Johnson and Provost Kevin Carman has greatly contributed to my triumphs," she said. "I was fortunate enough to have had amazing mentors in Honors, Dr. Daniel Villanueva, and in Gender, Race, and Identity, Dr. Emily Hobson, guide me throughout my undergraduate career and thesis preparation and completion."
Her honors thesis was on the impact U.S. military intervention in Central America had on the immigration of child migrants to the U.S. Padilla-Rodriguez defended her undergraduate history thesis May 7, which she said was one of the most memorable and formative academic experiences she had as a member of the Honors Program at the University.
The role of a mentor
"I am not surprised of Ivón's success," Emma Sepúlveda, Foundation Professor in world languages and literature and director of the Latino Research Center, said. "She is hard working, has a hunger for knowledge and motivation to keep going. She has never forgotten where she's come from. She flies high with her dreams in sight, while keeping her feet on the ground."
During the University's Honor the Best ceremony this spring, Sepúlveda was recognized by the Nevada System of Higher Education with the Regents' Creative Activities Award. She also stood by Padilla-Rodriguez during the Senior Scholars banquet as her selected mentor.
Sepúlveda reflected on what she called the "larger legacy of Latino students" during a recent interview.
"The University has seen and produced many brilliant Latino students," she said. "There are quiet voices and quiet leaders, those who work behind the scenes, and then those - like Ivón - who find ways to speak about what she's doing. So many are making an incredible impact nationally and internationally."
Sepúlveda, originally from Chile, received her undergraduate degree from the University and doctorate degree from the University of California, Davis. She returned to Reno and joined the faculty in 1987, and was recently appointed by President Obama to the 12-member William J. Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
"I've learned over the years to be a true teacher and leader is to help others make decisions that are the best fit for them," she said. "I want to connect students with opportunities I've had; provide them valuable contacts. You have to be willing to open doors for others and help them walk through those doors."
"Dr. Emma Sepúlveda provided me with countless opportunities that facilitated many of my successes," Padilla-Rodriguez said.
In a recent interview on KUNR public radio with general manager David Stipech and University Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Carman, Sepúlveda talked about her mentorship with Padilla-Rodriguez.
"I've had the honor and privilege to mentor a lot of young women in my more than 30 years at the University, but Ivon has a very special place in my heart," she said. "She's a fist-generation student, her parents were immigrants from Mexico, she lived as a homeless kid for a while, and her only motivation was to become successful one day to not only give back to her community but so that her siblings would never live the life that she lived when she was young."
Sepúlveda approached Padilla-Rodriguez when she was a freshman at the University, a time when Sepúlveda said she was "a little bit lost." Padillia-Rodriguez's remarkable life story, drive and interest in research ultimately led Sepúlveda to ask her to coauthor a book about undocumented youth.
"The Country I Call Home" includes 41 first-person accounts of young adults or Dreamers, who, through the legislative proposal called the DREAM Act, would be granted permanent residency. "I was completely shocked, at a loss for words," Padilla-Rodriguez said. "Never at my age did I think I would coauthor a book about something I am so passionate about."
"Stories of Dreamers - college students who don't have their papers in the United States - would have a solution and could go to college," Sepúlveda said. "I felt like the stories of these young people weren't being told in a compelling and realistic way.
"Ivón says she was 'almost a Dreamer.' Her mother contemplated having her in Mexico, but Ivón's father encouraged that she was born in the United States. She was very fortunate and she's never forgotten that connection."
Sepúlveda said they will continue to work with each other even after graduation, visiting campuses and places to promote their book, which will be available for purchase on Amazon this summer.
"She has an amazing life story and is one of the most motivated students I've ever had," Sepúlveda said. "You mentor these kids then, the thing is, they go away and you want to keep them next to you. She wants to become a judge one day and I think she will."