The Women’s Leadership Panel began in tears and ended with a group selfie. As part of the UTRGV Women’s History Month celebration, the panel featured three community leaders who represent issues they strive to resolve in the Rio Grande Valley.
The panelists spoke on the challenges they have faced as women, exceeding limitations and being driven by their struggles to accomplish more, both personally and for their community. More than 50 students attended the event, which took place March 29 on the Edinburg campus.
As career-oriented Latina professionals, they advocated that students can become leaders in their community by taking advantage of educational opportunities and advancing themselves professionally. They answered questions posed by the moderator, as well as several from students.
The first woman introduced was Jessica Serna, outreach representative for the High School Equivalency Program at UTRGV, a program that helps migrants and labor workers earn their GED certificate, so that they may qualify for more educational or work opportunities.
“Education, to me, is the way to get out,” Serna said. “It is the way to be a better person and to be able to give back. I continue to push myself and be the best I can be because I want to be in a position to make changes.”
With a bachelor’s degree in geology from Trinity University and a master’s in geographic information science from the University of Denver, Joanna Sanchez promotes education as a means of uplifting the community. The Pharr native, inspired by personal experience, started her own nonprofit organization, Odisea Inc., which helps local families deal with their kids moving away from home to attend college. Sanchez is a third-year doctoral student in educational administration at UT Austin.
While Sanchez worked to become a good role model, both academically and in the community, she joked that her family was more excited when she got engaged than when she decided to seek a doctoral degree. Sanchez recognizes that there are many subtle issues that are normalized in Valley culture that may dissuade women from focusing on career goals. However, Sanchez and the other women on the panel affirmed that it is OK for women to be “selfish” and to continue advancing themselves professionally.
“One of the challenges we face as Latina leaders is that we have to find the balance with cultural responsibilities,” Sanchez said. “The traditions that our families expect of us and some of our goals and our drive.”
Esther Herrera is the operations manager at LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Entero) which is a community-based union that has over 7,000 members Valleywide.
LUPE was founded by iconic labor rights activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989 and was established in Hidalgo County in 2003 to help the community organize to protect the rights of immigrants and residents of colonias and low-income neighborhoods.
Herrera described her organization’s main goal as being a way to help serve the large population of immigrant and low-income families in the Valley, as well as changing the way that people talk about immigration. Serving the legacy that Chavez left, LUPE wishes to make the political issue of immigration more of a human issue.
“Let’s get educated, let’s change the rhetoric nationwide, let’s talk about the criminalization of immigration,” Herrera said.
Herrera asserted that, in her experience, she has found that male co-workers often question her credibility as a community leader due to her appearance. She has to constantly remind men that she is educated to validate herself.
“Unless you have credentials at the end of your name, men won’t take you seriously,” Herrera said. “They think [it’s] just another pretty face, a skirt. As a social activist I have a responsibility to my community, and I have to stand firm.”
The women of the panel affirmed Herrera’s experience. Serna suggested that for women pursuing a path within a male-dominated field, the best way to excel and maintain respect is to be self-aware and to learn about women’s history.
“Stay knowledgeable of your own history and the issues [women leaders] are facing,” Serna said. “Get out of your comfort zone and maybe volunteer for organizations to learn about people you wouldn’t normally meet. Become more engaged and aware in getting more personal with the community and that can help your careers and future goals.”
Sanchez echoed Serna’s sentiment and countered that students should also be genuine in everything that they do to work toward their goals. She took from her personal experience as a Latina woman with a doctorate, remarking that only 0.3 percent of Hispanics have doctoral degrees. Sanchez advocates for students to pursue their education despite the limitations.
“Being here has taken sacrifice, being brave, following your gut, but be authentic with what you do,” Serna said. “As long as you do that, whatever is your calling you will be successful with.”