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Trinity grad to focus her experience on a career in public health advocacy

Trinity graduate Andrea Chavez will pursue a master’s in public health at Brown University in Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Chavez)

Andrea Chavez’s extensive list of accomplishments stretches into her childhood, as she overcame serious injuries from a car crash and figured out how get to college despite being an undocumented immigrant with limited financial resources.

Her honors as a graduating senior (magna cum laude) at Trinity Washington University this spring include memberships in the Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Kappa Chi honor societies, receiving Trinity’s T Pin award for scholastic and campus activities achievement, and a slew of activities and accomplishments in a variety of areas.

Oh, and she worked to help support her family much of time since she was 15.

The energetic Chavez will take her degree in chemistry and minor in data analytics to Brown University in Rhode Island this summer to pursue a master’s in public health. She’ll manage that thanks to receiving Brown’s Health Equity Scholars award, which will cover her tuition and a research assistantship.

Perhaps a key turning point in getting where she is, Chavez explained, was when as a student at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland she realized she had a whole lot to learn if she wanted to get to college. Her mother was trained in El Salvador as an anesthesiologist, Chavez said, but her immigration status limits her work options in the United States. Her father, whose mental health issues had led to abuse in her family and other trauma, had returned to El Salvador when she was 15, leaving Chavez and her brother in Maryland with their mother, with greatly reduced finances.

“I knew college was possible because my mom went to college.” But her mother’s experience in El Salvador didn’t help her daughter when it came to applying to U.S. colleges or knowing how to navigate the complexities of financial aid.

“I really had no good role models for my situation,” she said. She was in a science and technology program at Oxon Hill, but was one of only four Latinos in the program in her graduating class of 200. “And nobody knew I was undocumented,” she said.

So she got resourceful and started Googling for information. “I found a mentor on YouTube.” The 17-minute video by a young woman named Tania, “How I Got into Harvard + Tips for DACA Students,” told how someone who is undocumented may have a path to college admission, even scholarships.

DACA is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that allows people who were brought to the United States as children to receive protection from deportation and work permits if they meet certain requirements. Many states prohibit undocumented students, even those with DACA, from attending state universities or require they do so only as foreign students, which carries a hefty cost difference from in-state tuition. Federal grants, loans and many other types of higher education funding are also unavailable to so-called Dreamers, as young undocumented immigrants are known, whether or not they hold DACA.

Aspiring to attend an Ivy League college herself, Chavez got in touch with Tania, who has guided her in pursuing higher education. Chavez does not have DACA but said she has been approved for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which is available to those who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. She said her father’s mental health struggles exposed her to that. Unlike DACA, SIJ status offers a path to legal residency, or a green card.

Trinity Washington University has long welcomed Dreamers. Once she was admitted there with a financial aid package that made it workable, Chavez happily accepted the chance to continue to live at home and keep working to help her family, she said.

With advice from Tania and various staff and faculty members at Trinity, Chavez has been able to tap into several forms of assistance including scholarships, a career-launch program and advocacy training for Dreamers. She also was selected as a research program scholar at John Hopkins University through a partnership between Trinity and Johns Hopkins. She will continue her experience this summer as one of just seven students in the Trinity-Johns Hopkins Summer Undergraduate Research

(SURE) program designed to further supplement and support graduate school applications.

Chavez is quick to credit the staff and faculty at Trinity for helping her figure it all out and stay on track academically. “They all have been so influential in my life and have shaped me into a strong Trinity woman,” she said in a post on Trinity’s website.

Her academic path at Trinity has evolved from her initial enrollment in the university’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, to a shift to the best help those who need it most, those who are uninsured, low-income, minorities, undocumented, and oftentimes neglected,” she said in the website post. “After consulting with multiple mentors, professors, and friends, I realized that my life experiences have revolved around public health. My background and my life have primed me to influence public health and hopefully bring about programs that serve those who need it most.”

So, when the next chapter of her education at Brown is finished, “I plan to come back to D.C. and work on Capitol Hill, influencing health policy and being a voice of change for our community,” she wrote. “I want to bring us closer to passing a universal health care bill and developing programs to help black and brown communities. … My goal is to make access to health care more equitable for everyone.”