The White House recently recognized Yesenia Ayala ’18 for her courage and contributions to the Latino community in Iowa. She and 10 other young women were selected from more than 1,000 nominees as Champions of Change for empowering and inspiring members of their communities.

Ayala said later that the experience helped her go beyond her comfort zone to advocate for the community she loves and that needs support.

“Through my personal experience,” she added, “I was able to bring awareness to not only the local, state, but national community of the importance of mentoring and supporting students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how we can all come together as one to make the movement work.”

As a service learning work-study student at Grinnell, Ayala works for Al Exito — a nonprofit group that empowers Latino youth in nine Iowa cities. She coordinates programming and mentoring for middle and high school Latino students, facilitates family programming and events, and engages other Grinnell students in encouraging Latino students to stay in school and plan for college.

Ayala also has designed and led workshops to inform Latino youth and their parents about the U.S. education system, financial aid, essay writing, and the college applications process. These activities promote more family involvement at school, greater civic engagement, and an increase in the likelihood that young Latinos will graduate from high school and pursue higher education.

A native of Los Angeles, Ayala is majoring in sociology and Spanish with a concentration in Latin American studies. She plans to pursue a law degree in civil rights upon graduation.

This fall, she continues to work with Al Exito to develop ways to incorporate teachers into the program, which Ayala hopes will expand statewide.  

Ayala’s Inspiration

Ayala talking with Auñón (who is in a NASA suit) at a gathering At a ceremony on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, Ayala joined other Champions of Change in a panel discussion moderated by MTV video blogger Francesca Ramsey. Ramsey noted that it’s often tough to get Latino students and their families comfortable with the college application process when it’s a completely new experience for them. Then she asked Ayala: “What have you done as a leader to overcome some of those fears from students and parents that you’ve been working with?”

Ayala said she was inspired to do the work she is doing because she is a first-generation Latina college student who had a difficult journey from high school to college. She often shares her story at Al Exito events to inspire others.

“I was working fulltime at McDonald’s as a manager while in high school, I was going to high school in a very low-income community, and I was striving to get A’s,” she said. “I was also taking the responsibility and the role of helping my parents raise my siblings.”

Thanks to the encouragement of a high school English teacher, Ayala applied for a Posse Foundation scholarship, as did more than 2,100 students in LA. She was one of 112 selected, winning admission to Grinnell, where she receives a full-tuition scholarship and additional financial aid.

“In most Latino families and communities,” Ayala said, “it’s very difficult for parents to let their children aspire for higher education, because they come from a community where they don’t know anything about the U.S. education system. … So every time we conduct a workshop, it’s our opportunity to let our parents know, our community know, our students know that it may be difficult sometimes to break those boundaries, those cultural oppositions, but it’s okay to do it.  If you don’t take a risk, you never know how far you can go.”

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