The Latin American and Latina/o Studies Program celebrates the educational experiences of our undergraduate students. This summer we feature Jessica Ochoa, a junior, bilingual education major with a minor in Latin American and Latina/o Studies.

Currently, Jessica is a student worker for the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology (CeMaST). She worked on outreach during the school year with an after-school elementary program that partnered with the YWCA, CeMaST, and District 87. Ochoa has also helped with the curriculum, represented CeMaST at the state fair, and worked on SmartGrid for All. Currently, she is working as a STEM intern teaching STEM lessons in District 87 with CeMaST.

Ochoa is from Belvidere, a town near Rockford. Her career plan was always to be a teacher, but it was not until this past summer that she realized that she wanted to pursue graduate studies as well. Ochoa recalls how the process of figuring out the transition from high school to college required help from high school counselors, but it wasn’t a straightforward path. The realization that she wanted to further her education beyond her bachelor’s degree happened at ISU as she saw herself in the Latina professors she encountered as a student. She is now planning to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. in the future. Ideas are already percolating as she is considering a master’s in Diversity, Equity Education.

Her interest in education is drawn from her own personal experiences.

“But from personal experience being a Latina, we’re not [given] the resources what we need to be successful,” she said. “And it’s not even about like equality, it’s about equity, giving us what we need to achieve the things that we are capable of achieving. But because we’re not given that it’s kind of like a door in our face. So, I would love to get an educational policy to reform those policies to provide more support for minorities, to open more doors, and get us all through, to college and to become educators.”

Ochoa’s educational experiences at ISU were also shaped by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020. Ochoa spent one semester on campus and was then sent home due to the pandemic. She spoke about her experiences being a student during the pandemic and how her academic goals have shifted since her freshman year. She struggled to find community at ISU because it is a PWI. Zooming from home made the process of getting connected to campus also difficult.

Coming back to in-person classes was a welcomed change for her. Ochoa is a semester away from graduating. She said that finding her community and adjusting to being on campus was hard. As an only daughter, being away from her Mexican family was particularly difficult.

“Definitely a weird transition only being here one semester before the pandemic started, getting sent home doing online school for two years then coming back a junior but feeling like a freshman,” Ochoa said. “It was an adjustment. When I left, I was barely finding my community and getting used to being a college student. Being away from my parents and being the only daughter in Latina family, specifically a Mexican family, it was kinda hard, and I struggled a lot finding community considering [ISU] is a predominantly white school. When I was finally finding a community, I had to go home. It was hard to gain that sense of community doing school online and I felt that as a college student it was difficult to fully grasp that college experience and really take in all that ISU had to offer.”    

When asked what it was like to return to in-person classes, Ochoa mentioned right away that it was hard to balance everything. Her major is very demanding and in order to fit the Latino Studies minor, she had one semester with six classes. Ochoa mentioned that she found out about the minor last summer (2021) and was surprised but glad when she learned she only needed one more credit to declare the minor. Now she’s a junior and leaving campus for student teaching she wishes she’d been told about it along with more resources that ISU offered.

One way she dealt with the lack of community once in-person resumed was by creating an RSO called RedBirds en Ritmo, where students come together to learn about Latin music and dance. It is a fun and safe space to be Latinx. Ochoa mentioned that at first very few people showed up, but after a while, the RSO had a regular group that would come in. She mentioned that she’s excited to see where the RSO will go after she leaves for her teaching internship next semester.

Ochoa is very glad to have met Dr. Toro-Morn, who taught the Intro to Latin American and Latina/o Studies course because it was through her class that she met so many other Latinas at ISU.

“No one brings us together and there isn’t representation or events to attract our population, nobody really knows about each other…” Ochoa said, which is why she really enjoyed taking the Intro to Latin American and Latina/o Studies course with Dr. Toro-Morn. It was there that realized that she’s not the only Latina at ISU.