Yesenia Ayala Receives Award at The White House

Nana Karayama, Features Editor
karayama@grinnell.edu

Yesenia Ayala ’18 was honored at the White House this Tuesday as a Champion of Change for her work in coordinating, programming and mentoring middle and high school Latino students and their families about higher education.

The Champions of Change program was founded by President Barack Obama in 2012, and acknowledges people who empower their community to have a voice and be recognized for its work.

“[The president] believes that in order for a country to move forward and actually develop we need to start from the community,” Ayala said.

Ayala was among 11 young women chosen from over 1,000 nominees for this prize. “I couldn’t believe [that I was selected] until the moment I got there,” she said.

The ceremony featured remarks from women who are outstanding in their respective fields – Serena Auñón, NASA’s second Latina astronaut and Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama.

Ayala seated at the Champions of Change panel discussion in the White House

Ayala in front of the White House.

Ayala was also able to meet with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, one of the members who elected the recipients of the award.

“She really knew about the work that we were doing, and she really connected with us on a personal level,” Ayala said. “She already knew our names which was pretty cool.”

A panel discussion with the recipients was also held and was moderated by YouTube personalities Laci Green and Franchesca Ramsey.

“It wasn’t just getting an award but was an opportunity to have a conversation about [our work] and how it’s significant to the country,” Ayala said. “I feel like this experience was most powerful because it was the first time I didn’t just have a voice for myself but I had a voice that represented a whole community.”

Ayala also had the chance to connect with the other recipients.

“They are very passionate about what they do, and take it to a whole different level,” she said. “There’s one person who developed technology for the blind, and I think that’s pretty cool because she had a personal experience with blindness, but after getting better she went back to her personal experience to try to develop something that will make people with this disability have a more accessible and easier continuation of what they’re doing.”

This was Ayala’s first time in Washington D.C, and she marveled at all of the monuments.

“My favorite part was taking pictures with quotes that really resonated with me,” she said. “My favorite monument was the [Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial] because his ideas and quotes I resonated with when it comes to the community.”

Ayala is a work-study fellow at Al Éxito, an Iowan organization that empowers Latino youth so they can graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary education. They also provide support for Latino families, helping them stay informed about the American school system and the importance of higher education.

“For me, parent involvement is very important,” Ayala said. “For cultural norms, parents are very hesitant to let their daughters go to college because they believe they need to provide for the household.”

Since last semester, Ayala coordinated workshops across Iowa for Latino middle and high school students and their parents, and taught about the U.S. education system, financial aid and essay writing.

These workshops were conducted in both English and Spanish and had many interactive components.

“There were a lot of conversations and ice breakers with the parents and students,” Ayala said. “We shared our personal stories, which broke the barrier. We had parents crying and really just opening up to why they didn’t want their kids to go to school far away.”

It may be difficult to imagine coordinating these programs along with having to do schoolwork, but Ayala does not see her role in Al Éxito as work.

“It’s a part of me, it’s a reason why I’m still here at Grinnell,” she said. “Everybody finds a passion that keeps them where they are at, for me that’s been Al Éxito.”

This group is now an official campus organization named Grinnell Al Éxito, and boasts over 20 members. A few other students in this work-study position are Alfredo Colina ’18 and Jason Camey ’16.

Grinnell Al Éxito is not just a volunteer organization, it is also a tightly knit community.

“I found a family there,” Ayala said. “The volunteers at the College are my support system, and we are each other’s support system.”

Al Éxito currently has a student and parent curriculum, but Ayala wants to create one for teachers that can be implemented in the Des Moines school system.

“The percentage of Latinos in the public school system [is] growing tremendously,” she said. “Teachers should have a cultural background so they can have better understanding and support … for their [students’] success.”

Ultimately, Ayala expressed gratitude for Grinnell and the Posse Foundation, who nominated her for Champions of Change. “Thinking that I would be where I am right now was something I couldn’t imagine,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Posse and Grinnell I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”