Ramirez’s road to outreach

Coordinator talks being a "safe space" for students

Lilly Montero, @lilly_montero3

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As Student Outreach coordinator, Elizabeth Ramirez helps hundreds of high school students every week better determine what they are going to do with their future. She encourages them to go college, get scholarships, make use of student resources, and make the overall transition from high school to college easier. She is also the adviser for the United by Dreams Club, a club which provides a community to undocumented students.

“I want to make sure that they all know, especially undocumented students, that they have a safe space with me,” said Ramirez. “I will advocate for students.”

As a high school student herself, Ramirez hadn’t always had an advocate in her corner to cheer her on and guide her.  

Growing up, Ramirez had only been given two key messages about her future. The first was that she would one day be a mother and a wife — that much had been clear since she was young. Throughout her childhood she’d learned all she needed to know about managing a household and by high school Ramirez was like a second mother to her little brother.

The second message she’d received about her future was it didn’t include higher education. This had been communicated in more subtle ways. Things her family would say to her, the way teachers had treated her and the overall lack of representation in the media had all reinforced the idea that college was simply unavailable to her.

“Growing up I only heard from my parents and family members a lot of rhetoric about my future as a mom and as a wife, but I never heard anything about as a scholar or as a professional,” Ramirez said.

It didn’t help that Ramirez lived the constant fear of losing her parents.

“[Having] undocumented parents was rough, because at any given moment they could be deported and it was constant fear that I lived with,” Ramirez said.  

With both parents undocumented and in need of her help, Ramirez had been too preoccupied to consider a future that was quickly approaching. It was only through a broad support group and the slow but steady growth in her own confidence that Ramirez made it to where she is today.

The first breakthrough happened in her senior year.

The young student had been slacking off, wandering the halls on a “bathroom break” as she sometimes did when she happened to pass by one of her favorite classes. The class was Spanish for native speakers and she really liked the teacher. She stopped, peered in the small window in the door and waved, drawing the teacher’s attention. At that moment her Spanish teacher stepped out of the class room and asked Ramirez if she had applied for college yet. Ramirez said no and that she’d apply later and the teacher immediately stopped her class, sat Ramirez down at her desk and forced her to apply to community college.

“She was the first one to tell me that I was smart,” said Ramirez.

It was a handful of stark moments like this one and people recognizing her potential that ultimately changed the trajectory of her life.

Out of a group of 11 friends, Ramirez was the only one to graduate college. Looking back on it, Ramirez remembers feeling very lonely standing in graduation cap and gown, but it ultimately pushed her to continue on her own.

“That’s what happens when you have friends who are actual gang members,” Ramirez said. “They drop out.”

As she continued her education, her support group grew to include people who were similarly motivated and saw in Ramirez what she hadn’t yet seen in herself. In her second year at Ohlone college, her classmates nominated her to attend to a leadership conference in Riverside.

“I was super confused, because I did not see myself as a leader,” said Ramirez, and she almost rejected the opportunity.

However, with all of her classmates and teachers encouraging her, she decided to attend the conference and had yet another breakthrough. Surrounded by Chicanx and Latinx activists, politicians, creatives and leaders, Ramirez found herself fantasizing about higher education. When she came back from the conference, she created the first Puente club at Ohlone, worked in admission and records, and finally realized her own potential.

“I didn’t realize that a lot of the skills that I had are transferable to being a professional,” Ramirez said.

She was already charismatic and in helping her parents manage the household — translating for them, scheduling appointments, and so on — helped her become organized and responsible. Now Ramirez hopes to help others, especially undocumented students, realize their own potential.

“It was mentors that really impacted me, so I want to pay it forward,” Ramirez said. “Once you’re able to see past that and really believe in yourself that’s when you know that you’re capable of everything.”

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