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Selena Huapilla-Perez: Living the American Dream

May 8, 2019

Selena Huapilla-Perez graduated May 5 with her bachelor's degree. in interdisciplinary humanities with a double minor in Chicano/Latino Studies and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at the College of Arts and Letters commencement ceremony. Huapilla-Perez was the MSU Convocation speaker, the first Latina in MSU’s history to be chosen for this honor.

Having faced many challenges and uncertainties during my academic career, on Sunday, May 5, my undergraduate journey came to a close.

I am from Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the country, a community that is 71.6 percent Hispanic, 21.4 percent Black and 5.13 percent White, with 80 percent of the community fluent in a non-English language. The majority of people who live there live under a poverty line that should not exist today, my parents included.

Growing up, I migrated with my family to nine different states where we worked in the fields picking tomatoes, jalapenos, cucumbers, bell peppers and corn. Going from the life of a migrant worker to Michigan State University, I have been able to take my dreams and the dreams of my parents from the fields to the classroom.

Having the opportunity to represent the Class of 2019 as the convocation speaker is both exciting and an honor. The journey to get to this point hasn’t been easy. When my friends were talking about college during my senior year of high school, I wasn’t even part of those conversations. My parents encouraged me to consider college as long as it wasn’t too far away.

They weren’t expecting me to do anything bigger than what was in our comfort zone, or what they were willing to help me pay for school, so I applied to the community college —  40 minutes away from home.

Everything changed when I met Elias Lopez, a recruiter for MSU’s Migrant Student Services CAMP Program, who gave a presentation at my high school. I didn’t know how far Michigan was or even where Michigan State was located, but I wanted to get out of class so I went to the presentation. But then I heard this man, a Latino, talk about how he came from migrant farm working parents, his struggles of getting into higher education, what Michigan State did for him and how he was able to get his bachelor’s and then his master’s degrees. Just hearing how passionate he was about higher education and how much he wanted to help us be part of that narrative too — after that day, if nothing else, I knew I wanted to go to Michigan State.

Selena CAMP

Selena Huapilla-Perez found support at MSU through Migrant Student Services and the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

When my acceptance letter from MSU arrived that was one of the happiest moments I have experienced. My parents, however, were less excited and told me I wasn’t going that far and that I should stay in Florida. I took a leap of faith when I received a phone call from Elias, who wanted to know if I was coming or if my spot should be given to another student. This happened right before I was going to church with my parents. I told him I was coming, and then prayed the entire time I sat there in church. I didn’t know how I was getting to MSU, and I didn’t want my parents to be super mad at me, but I knew I needed to go.

There was definitely some silence on the ride home after telling my parents. Fortunately, both of my parents came around and have been very supportive. Having their support was needed because I began doubting myself. I didn’t know where I was going, and when I got here, I thought this place was bigger than anything I had ever seen.

 Family at airport

Selena Huapilla-Perez's family waits for her to return during one of her trips back to Florida.

In addition to the Michigan winters, adjusting to this new life was shocking to say the least. I come from a community of color where people look like me, talk like me and have similar backgrounds like mine. Coming here, I didn’t see many people of color. I was the only person of color in most of my classrooms, and I was forgetting my Spanish because there was no one that I could practice it with.

One place that reminded me of home is located in Holden Hall — the CAMP office. Whenever I go into the CAMP office, I can hear music playing that I know. I hear people speaking Spanish. I see other Brown people like me.

During my time at MSU, I have become actively involved in several organizations, programs, student groups and have experienced more than I could have possibly imagined.

I remember I had a conversation with a professor who told me that “if you don’t see people like you, you need to be the people like you in those organizations,” and it was because of the lack of people like me in spaces like these that made me want to step up.

I have volunteered a lot in the greater Lansing community with organizations serving underserved populations. Ultimately, I want to impact students, not just locally, but nationally. One day I want to end up working at the U.S. Department of Education — maybe even the first Latina Secretary of Education.

Selena at DOE

 Selena Huapilla-Perez at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., during her internship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

I’ve had a taste of what it's like working for the U.S. Department of Education. Last summer, I had an internship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. This internship allowed me to look at education at the national level and do a lot of research on the trajectory of communities, especially on the trajectory of Hispanics in the United States. This experience helped me connect the dots to my minor in Chicano/Latino Studies.

In addition to my internship in D.C., I have been able to learn through three study abroad programs. From Mexico, to the Philippines, to four different European countries, I have gained so much insight about the ways in which education is key to helping people escape poverty and that some of the best classrooms aren’t bound by four walls.

Having the opportunities I have had didn’t happen by chance. Every step of the way, I've had people help me get to where I want to be. And when it felt like there was a door that was closed, there were people on campus that were willing to open another door for me.

study abroad

Selena Huapilla-Perez during her study abroad trip to the Philippines her sophomore year.

My parents remind me that a college degree doesn’t make me better than the next person, but a college degree can help me make this a better place for the next person.

This summer I will intern with the Dream Fellowship at UCLA for students who do social justice rights activism work. Then, in September, I will move to Denver, Colorado where I will spend a year of service working for City Year at schools that serve low-income, first-generation immigrants and communities of color.

Applying to Michigan State was one of the biggest steps I could have taken for myself. I think everything happens for a reason, and I was meant to be at MSU.