Stephanie Zavala Honored at Dominican University Commencement
June 30, 2015 | Chicago, IL
Stephanie Zavala would have had a hard time imagining this moment when she was a high school freshman enrolled in the Erie House YOU program.
This spring, Zavala graduated from Dominican University with a double major, earning degrees in sociology and women & gender studies. To add to her honor, the former TEAM participant also was selected to give the invocation—a prayer often delivered during graduation ceremonies at religious institutions of higher learning—at the May commencement ceremony.
“I was chosen because of my involvement in the Ministry Center,” explains Zavala, who doesn’t describe herself as a very religious person but nevertheless served as a student worker in the Catholic university’s social justice-oriented SLAM (Student Leadership and Ministry) initiative during her junior and senior years.
Her involvement at Dominican ranged from efforts to show hospitality to students from different backgrounds to addressing hunger issues facing Chicago’s homeless population to leading immersion trips to the South to experience the historic Civil Rights road.
"Dominican offered me life-changing experiences that allowed me to discover my passions," says Zavala, who valued her classroom and extracurricular activities that explored justice issues such as the struggle for gender equality, racial reconciliation and creating safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized peoples.
Erie House YOU director Joshua Fulcher is not surprised that Zavala chose to be involved in helping others while studying at Dominican. “The obstacles Stephanie has had to overcome have created a great sense of empathy within her,” says Fulcher, observing that it would have been just as easy for her to become embittered. “Instead, struggles produced empathy in her.”
“Whatever path she chooses, she will help those marginalized by our society, relying on a compassion developed from being there herself,” he predicts. Fulcher is proud of the achievements Stephanie has notched thus far, citing her resilience, intelligence and self-awareness as assets that will continue to help her excel in life.
Zavala’s is indeed a story of overcoming obstacles. She is undocumented, having come to the United States from Mexico with her parents at age two. Her working-class parents speak primarily Spanish at home, and she is the first in her family to graduate from college. Zavala also identifies as lesbian, adding to the complex, marginalized identities that she holds in tension.
“I am a gay Latina undocumented woman,” she says with pride, aware of the stigma those multiple identities can attract. She credits Erie House with believing in her before she was able to believe in herself, instilling in her a self-confidence that has catapulted her into leadership roles over the past decade.
Her mentor, Jill Levine, accompanied Zavala the summer after her high school sophomore year to Ithaca, New York, for a prestigious program sponsored by Cornell University. The two were forced to travel 14 hours by train, Zavala being unable to fly without a state-issued ID.
That gesture—and Levine’s unrelenting support throughout her high school years—made a significant impact on Zavala. “It’s people like Joshua and people like Jill who come and who are committed every day—not just because it’s their job, but because they are passionate about their work with students and are eager to help them become successful,” she says. "“They made a huge difference.”
Zavala was among the original beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program established in 2012 by President Obama. DACA enabled her to register for a work permit and provided her with other protections as the child of immigrants. It also opened her eyes to the possibility of attending a four-year college or university. Empowered by a combination of scholarships and grants, she was able to enroll at Dominican University in nearby River Forest.
Her first two years in college were an extreme transition for Zavala. For one, she had to navigate the complex financial aid system in higher education, a process made even more difficult by her status as an undocumented student. “I did it all on my own,” she recalls. “To find a support system was really challenging.”
As she gained self-confidence and got involved in various activities on campus, Zavala began to really grow as an individual. “People started to get to know me for who I was. That was huge for me to think, ‘Wow, I am being recognized for something—for talents and gifts that I never thought I had,’” she recalls. “That was incredibly important because I always struggled with not feeling like I was smart enough or I was good enough or I was going to make it. To have people ask for advice or for a hug—that was really big for me.”
Fast-forward to the day she graduated, and Zavala had all the reason in the world to be proud of her accomplishments. “Graduation wasn’t about me,” she says. “Once you’re there (on stage), you’re there for like two seconds. You walk, and that’s it. So I was like, ‘Wait, where was that spark?’” While the moment may have come and gone in an instant for her, Zavala believes the spark continues to reside with her parents.
“I think it manifested itself in my parents—especially in my dad—to see how excited they were,” she observes. “My dad was on the aisle, standing up and taking pictures. That entire moment was really special for him. I don’t think they ever thought when they came to this country that I’d be walking across the stage with a bachelor’s degree.”
Also in attendance at the ceremony were Fulcher and Levine, proud to see yet another TEAM graduate go on to do great things. But for some reason, this achievement seemed even more significant.
“Stephanie has had plenty of reasons to quit and throw in the towel—sometimes the force of these all hitting at once,” says Fulcher, who counts his former student among the strongest, most inspiring women he has met. “She bent, but she never broke.”
Zavala is currently exploring graduate programs and a future career in a justice-related endeavor. “My tools and my knowledge lie in social justice,” she says. “I see myself working toward gender equality or getting rid of oppression in our society and other systemic issues that my communities face. This is what I need to be doing, what I want to be doing.”
“I have a vision of where I want to be, what I want to be doing and the change I want to be creating,” she adds, “but I don’t know exactly how that’s all going to happen—yet.” Zavala acknowledges she feels some anxiety about this uncertainty—not atypical for a recent graduate just entering the workforce—but she remains hopeful. "It is because of the lessons that Dominican taught me that I am learning to be patient with this process. I've learned to just trust in myself and in the world to put me on the right path."
Given the trail of obstacles she’s overcome in making it this far, it’s safe to say the sky is the limit for Zavala as her journey continues.