Listening to her heart
Claudia Aguilar is an advocate for Hispanic/Latino students
|Claudia Aguilar, a sociology major, found U.Va. to be a difficult environment at first. She described her initial feelings of isolation during last fall’s “Different Voices, Common Threads,” a program that introduces diversity to first-year students. “I wanted the new students who might be questioning how they fit in to know that they weren’t alone, that they could go out and find their passion like I did,” she said.
By Virginia E. Carter
In the photograph, she is a smiling 7-year-old, standing with her mother, older brother and baby sister on the balcony of their apartment in Arlington. Chin up, feet firmly planted together, she already projects strength and energy – qualities that many now use to describe her.
Fast forward 14 years, and the newest photos of Claudia Aguilar will likely show her surrounded by family and friends as she graduates from U.Va. on May 22. For her, and especially for her parents, it marks the achievement of an American dream – one that began many years ago and many miles from Charlottesville.
Wanting a better future for their children, the Aguilars left their native Bolivia in 1990 to come to the United States. Claudia sailed through public schools, capturing the attention of teachers and counselors who saw her great potential. With their encouragement, she applied to U.Va. and was accepted early decision in the fall of 2000.
During her first semester, however, the sailing wasn’t so easy. Coming from Wakefield High School in Arlington, where the student body is predominantly Hispanic/Latino and 40 percent come from low-income families, Aguilar found that she not only looked different from most of her fellow U.Va. students, but felt different too.
“I never had to worry about my identity before, but suddenly I felt like I didn’t belong here,” she said, recounting a time when she sat between two students who introduced themselves across her, completely ignoring her. “I felt invisible, sad and really homesick,” Aguilar said.
Invisible is one of the last words that would describe Aguilar now. Recognizing that “U.Va. had a lot to offer me and I had a lot to offer U.Va.,” she began to get involved during her second semester. She took a first step by joining Lambda Theta Alpha, a national Latina sorority.
This year she served as president. For her outstanding leadership, she was named President of the Year at the annual Greek awards banquet, and her chapter was named Chapter of the Year. For her service beyond the Greek community, she received the Outstanding Contribution to the Community award.
During her years at U.Va., Aguilar emerged as a leader within Hispanic/Latino student community and beyond. She served as a consultant for UVA Lead, a student leadership program based within the Office of the Dean of Students, sat on the Cultural Programming Board; was a peer mentor to another Hispanic/Latino student; was active in the Latino Student Union; belonged to a Sustained Dialogue group; and served as a student liaison to the Alumni Association’s Bolivar Network. In the larger Charlottesville community, she volunteered with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and mentored a young Mexican girl through U.Va.’s “Day in the Life” program.
In an effort to attract to U.Va. other Hispanic/Latino students, which currently make up less than 3 percent of the student body, Aguilar was invited to serve on the Latino Student Admission Committee and was instrumental in planning activities for prospective and admitted students. Getting Hispanic/Latino students involved here still poses challenges, she noted. Out of more than 300 admitted students, only 13 came to Grounds for a program in their honor this spring.
Those who know Aguilar say that she never gives up. They cite her hard work, integrity, sense of gratitude and overall passion for life as her outstanding qualities. “She holds within her a genuine faith and hope for the best in humanity,” said Tabitha Enoch, director of orientation and new student programs. “What makes Claudia stand out from all other students is her positive energy. You know she is in the room because you feel her enthusiasm, her warmth and her charisma.”
After graduation, Aguilar will begin a two-year position with Teach for America. In July, she will move to Miami, where she will teach elementary schoolchildren at an inner-city school.
She knows there will be challenges and that the tangible rewards may be few. “Making money is not what I am about,” she said. “I really want to give back right now. My heart is telling me to do this.”