Karen Vanegas '13 Breaks Down Barriers to Education

Karen Vanegas '13, an economics major with a Chinese minor, plans to become the first college graduate in her family. Her mother began attending college in her native El Salvador, but an outbreak of a civil war forced her to leave the country and abruptly abandon her education. Her father grew up working in El Salvador's sugar and tobacco fields, where the acute poverty made college an impossibility.

"My parents have always been adamant about me getting an education, and they gave me the motivation to take advantage of the opportunities that weren't available to them," said Vanegas.

It is precisely this understanding of the invaluable role of education and the challenges confronting so many aspiring students that compelled Vanegas to take on an internship at the Washington, D.C.-based Hispanic College Fund, a nonprofit organization committed to breaking down barriers to Hispanic educational achievement. Vanegas worked with a group of 20 female high school students from the Washington and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, mentoring them through the college application process. She advised the students how to find scholarships, counseled them on talking to parents about attending an out-of-state school, and offered insights on what to expect in their first year of college.

The Hispanic College Fund also asked that she speak to the 200 students in the program about Mount Holyoke and her experiences here.

"Mount Holyoke is unique in that it's such a diverse campus in both student body composition and the various perspectives represented within the community," Vanegas said. "Many in the audience were prospective first-generation college students who weren't aware of the immense opportunities for them. I really love Mount Holyoke, and to be able to tell students across the country there is this amazing school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, was really great."

In addition to her mentoring, Vanegas and her students organized community engagement projects and designed action plans to address issues of local concern. Much of what she learned in her first two semesters at Mount Holyoke fed her efforts at the Hispanic College Fund. Changing America, a course she took with Five College lecturer Sujani Reddy, closely examined the issues of borders, cultural production, and immigration politics, all of which came up in the course of her internship.

"It was interesting because the class discussed the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act at length, and then I worked a lot with DREAM students in this program. I'd been assigned readings on the legislation and was aware of the opposition to it, but it was interesting to hear firsthand accounts from DREAM students about the negativity they'd confronted and why the DREAM Act was so important to them," she explained.

The experience has strengthened Vanegas's support for educational equality and accessibility, and she remains committed to aiding students in their pursuit of a higher education. It's been particularly rewarding for her to still hear from the girls she mentored, seeking advice on the application process.

"I will continue to mentor and guide students who have the desire to better themselves, especially students who--like me--are the first in their family to take this very big step," said Vanegas. "Mount Holyoke has instilled in me a desire to become more engaged in my community [with the] message that the best way to serve your community is to learn from your community. My experience at the Hispanic College Fund has really allowed me to put that idea into action."

Vanegas 's internship experience was financed in part by a grant from Mount Holyoke's Inclusiveness Initiatives Fund--an initiative designed to support innovation around the objective of enhancing the role diversity plays in the Mount Holyoke community, as well as the curricular and cocurricular dimensions of students' educations.