Dreamer's journey: For Rosalinda Espinosa, being an undocumented immigrant made her work harder
NORMAN — When she wasn't studying, Rosalinda Espinosa spent hours at the public library researching college majors and taking practice tests for the ACT and SAT.
But most of all, she scoured every resource she could for information about college scholarships.
The enterprising student got excited just thinking about the possibilities for her life. Then a high school counselor gently dashed those hopes with cold, hard facts.
Espinosa wasn't eligible for many scholarships and government-backed aid because she was an undocumented immigrant.
"I was devastated," she said. "That had always been my yellow brick road — if you work hard in school, opportunities will come to you."
Today, Espinosa is the newly crowned Miss Hispanic University of Oklahoma.
Through her studious ways and hard work at jobs both on campus and off, Espinosa, 20, is finishing up her junior year as an industrial engineering major. She is about to embark on her second prestigious summer internship before starting her senior year of college in the fall.
The honor roll student said she wants to encourage Hispanic girls to pursue STEM careers as part of her pageant platform.
It's her Dreamer's dream to help others succeed.
'I've come this far'
In her cultural presentation for the pageant, Espinosa wrote and performed a monologue about a night she had an acute bout of homesickness.
The young woman said she seemed to be plagued by "imposter syndrome," a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. She reached out to her mom for consolation and found her mother on her doorstep shortly afterward.
"My mom drove down to Norman to bring me 'arroz con leche' (a traditional dessert)," she said, smiling.
The moving story centered around the themes at the heart of her personal journey: the importance of family and education.
She said her parents left Mexico to bring her to America so that she would have access to a good education and a better life. She said they worked odd jobs over the years to support her and her two younger siblings and now her father is a mechanic and her mother is a child care worker. Espinosa said she was determined to find ways to pay for her college education herself.
In 2012, the Obama Administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, widely known as DACA, and Espinosa enrolled in it. The program allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for renewable, two-year permits that would protect them from deportation and allow them to work. The program doesn't provide these young people known as "Dreamers" with a path to citizenship, but it gave college-minded students like Espinosa an opportunity.
Espinosa attended high school at Dove Science Academy and worked after school to save for college. She started a community service club and volunteered in the community. Graduating as Dove's salutatorian, and with an ACT score of 30, the young woman saw her efforts pay off in a variety of ways.
Her senior year of high school, she was awarded a scholarship from the student serving as Mr. Hispanic OU, as part of his pageant platform. She attended a camp on the OU campus sponsored by Latinos Without Borders and eventually earned a scholarship from that organization as well. The young woman said she was thrilled when she was selected to participate in the OU President's Leadership Class, a program for OU freshmen designed to encourage outstanding Oklahoma high school students to remain in the state for their college careers.
Espinosa also became a scholar with the Multicultural Engineers Program at OU and obtained another scholarship. Last summer, Espinosa successfully competed against numerous college students around the country for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs in Utah. On the flight to Salt Lake City, her first plane ride, she could hardly believe that she'd earned such a prestigious opportunity.
Then she remembered that she'd waited tables the previous summer to earn money to continue her college classes. And she thought about all the obstacles she had to overcome.
"Everyday, I go to class and say, 'I've come this far. I'm a first-generation college student," she said.
"Not letting the 'no's' define me, I can actually implement change. I look at the 'yes.'"
Espinosa said her high school physics and English teachers nudged her toward a STEM major and she thinks it's a good fit for her skills. She sees herself guiding other Hispanic women to consider the same route and she hopes her story will serve as a positive example.
"I went to the camps and I had the resources and guidance but some people don't have that," she said. "I think it is possible to make a way, it's just so important for us to tell our stories."
Nanette Hathaway, director of OU's President's Leadership Class, said she remembers Espinosa as a freshman, riding her skateboard from class to her multiple jobs.
"She's a rock star — a young woman with a great big heart and a lot of grit," Hathaway said.
Matt Cancio, assistant director for OU Student Life and the Latino student life adviser, agreed.
"I've had the opportunity to be in her sphere of influence. She's a very impressive young lady," he said.
Gene Rainbolt, philanthropist and BancFirst founder, said he, too, was impressed with Espinosa when she and another student gave him a tour of their high school. She is now one of several young adults that he helps continue their educational pursuits.
"Rosalinda just shone like a star. She was enthusiastic, bright and insightful. She was just so special that it was clear to me that this young woman needed more opportunities," he said.
"She would not let the impediments of being undocumented stop her. If anything, it may have inspired her. It makes you want to help people like that. There are others like her and our objectives should be determining how are we going to make opportunities available for these young people who will impact their own communities as well as the nation."