Zitlali with her HECUA internship supervisor, Eleonore Wesserle.
Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This month we’re delighted to feature Zitlali Chavez Ayala. Zitlali is a graduate of Augsburg College, and completed the Inequality in America program in 2015.
Zitlali was a senior at Augsburg University when she enrolled in HECUA’s Inequality in America program. She’d heard of HECUA programs throughout her academic career, but assumed that they were only for students able to travel abroad. She filed the program away until she saw a colorful flyer promoting HECUA scholarships for un-DACA-mented students in partnership with Augsburg’s Latinx Student Services Office. Interest piqued, she spoke with then-LSS coordinator Dulce Monterrubio about the program and decided to apply. “HECUA seemed like a good way for me to get off campus and outside of the school environment without studying abroad,” she says, “and the scholarship made it possible for me to afford the program.”
Zitlali was an Environmental Science major at Augsburg, but she didn’t choose HECUA’s Environmental Sustainability program. Instead, she opted for a semester with the Inequality in America program. “I was interested in Inequality in America because of the way I grew up, and my background,” she explains. “I was born in Mexico, and came here in elementary school. Since I came here I’ve lived in St. Paul’s East Side, a low-income community. I was really interested in social justice, and thought this would fit right in. It did!”
Zitlali was surprised when the program began by how willing she was to be vulnerable with the other students and faculty. “I’m not someone who gets comfortable easily,” she says, laughing, “but within the group we built a strong community.” At the start of the semester, they laid down ground rules to help set standards for behavior. Program Director Phil Sandro reminded students that the topics they would cover over the semester were tough, and urged the class to keep in mind that these issues affect people in their communities and their fellow students. They were told to be respectful and mindful of others’ experience in discussion. The students implemented a rule Zitlali describes as: “whatever we say here, stays here.”
She adds, “There was a sense in the classroom that if someone was willing to speak up, we needed to be there to support them, to be listeners.” This is something Zitlali found lacking in the classroom settings she’d experienced in the past. “In a typical classroom experience, that sense of community isn’t built. Even if you are willing to speak, sometimes you can feel attacked. That wasn’t the case in my HECUA classroom. Even when people disagreed, they were able to do it in a respectful way.”
Today, Zitlali works as a liaison for Latinx families at an elementary school in Columbia Heights. She frequently finds connections between what she learned in her HECUA classroom and her work with families at the school. Students there struggle with any number of the intersecting issues discussed in class: homelessness, housing or food insecurity, discrimination. Knowing how this larger picture affects students’ presence in school has made Zitlali a more effective advocate. When she sees a student struggling to complete homework or behave appropriately, she looks for underlying causes.
“Having knowledge of systemic issues has helped me have more confidence as I advocate for families. I can see what they are working against and where they are coming from.” This knowledge has in turn helped Zitlali empower the families she works with. “I understand that they aren’t slacking – they are going through things that are often out of their control. Sometimes our families will have to access resources outside of the schools in these situations. In Inequality in America we learned a lot about those resources, and how important it is to advocate for yourself when you are applying for them.”
Zitlali enjoys the parts of her job that are family-facing in this way, but she’s feeling ready for a new challenge in the next few years. She’s particularly interested in exploring the intersection of environmental science and policy, potentially through a Master’s program. She feels strongly that more Latina voices are needed in the public conversation around environmental issues, and she wants to be part of moving that conversation forward.
We can’t wait to see what she’ll accomplish next!
To learn more about the Inequality in America program, click here.