Student embodies center’s core values of social justice

Story and photo by JAIME WINSTON

Construction is particularly loud outside the offices of the University of Utah’s Center for Ethnic Student Affairs.

Visitors to the office take a longer route due to the work being done to improve the Union building, which houses CESA. Despite the inconvenience, students inside the offices are building relationships and a support base.

According to CESA’s mission statement, the group assists ethnic students in navigating cultural, economic, social and institutional barriers. Valery Pozo, peer mentor for the program, embodies these principles, Luciano Marzulli said.

“She is a scholar, highly intelligent, well organized and really dedicated to our core values like social justice, equity and education,” said Marzulli, CESA Latina/o Program Coordinator.

In addition to working at CESA, Pozo is a resident advisor at the university’s Benchmark residence halls and co-chair for the campus branch of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan — MEChA. She is in her third year at the university and vocal about issues regarding Latina/o students.valery-pozo

Pozo said after she earns an undergraduate degree in history, she plans to pursue a master’s degree at Arizona State University and become a high school counselor. “Counselors have a vital role in students’ careers and students’ futures,” she said.

Pozo was born in Salt Lake City, but her parents are originally from Peru. When they came to Utah, they worked for another couple who discouraged them from teaching Pozo Spanish. The employers felt it would hold Pozo back. Now she is learning the language at school, but some instructors have assumed she already knows it and is looking for easy credit.

“I’ve been asked if I know Spanish and to leave the class because it’s not fair to the other students,” she said.

Students experiencing similar struggles often visit Pozo at CESA. One student approached Pozo because her parents were pressuring her to go into a science field even though she did not enjoy it. Eventually, the parents realized their daughter needed to make her own decisions about the direction her life takes.

Pozo’s mother inspired her daughter’s path in life. “I don’t think she realizes it, but my mother influenced me a lot in how I want to frame my life in social justice,” Pozo said. Her mother talked to her at a young age about issues like the United Fruit Company’s presence in South America and listened to news and political debates with her.

“When I was younger I was listening to the 1996 Democratic presidential debates and I rooted for Bill Clinton like no other,” Pozo said. She is now supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and met Chelsea Clinton when she campaigned for her mother at the university in January.

Aside from politics, Pozo is concerned with the way students are treated. Many educators show a lack of respect for identities of ethnic students and do not expect much of them academically, she said. Since Pozo was an honors student at East High School, teachers treated her better than other ethnic students, she said.   

Students at CESA tell each other about professors and other students who unintentionally make intolerant remarks. Pozo experienced this herself, when a professor repeatedly used the term “Latin American whore” to refer to his frequent visits to Latin America. “But just his language was ridiculous,” she said.

Some instructors do understand other cultures and encourage minority students to achieve, Pozo said, such as Theresa Martinez, associate professor in the Department of Sociology. Pozo also has noticed some high school counselors supporting students who want to get involved with MEChA and go to college.

Many students Pozo has met in MEChA have been discouraged from pursuing higher education. Pozo worked with one student who was told she was not cut out for a writing course by an instructor. Situations like this are not uncommon, Pozo said, especially for undocumented students.

A controversial bill, HB 241, preventing undocumented students from paying in-state tuition unless they do not have a job outside of school was recently debated. Undocumented students face many challenges already, Pozo said. An example is one of her high school friends. “She’s been here since she was really little,” Pozo said. “I don’t think it’s fair that we went to high school together, we did a lot of things together, and all of a sudden she wasn’t supposed to attend higher education.” Pozo and MEChA lobbied against the bill, which did not make it to the Senate floor.

The bill would have perpetuated the status of second class citizens placed on undocumented students, Pozo said. “If they don’t have an education, they don’t have the tools to pursue other goals and careers.” A limited number of scholarships are available to undocumented students. According to the university’s income accounting and student loan services, the in-state tuition for lower-division freshman with one credit hour is about $661, while an out-of-state student pays about $1,900.

Pozo said she stands up for what she believes in, even when it doesn’t have much impact. However, a handful of representatives like state Rep. David Litvak, D-Salt Lake, listens to the MEChA students and keeps them aware of what is going on inside the legislative sessions.

Colleen Casto, who does community outreach for diversity at the university, said the general public doesn’t always get a sense of the challenges immigrants face. “They don’t understand how difficult it is, the bureaucracy, how many years it takes people to get here and the compelling reasons why they come here,” she said.

Pozo was a student in Casto’s honors think-tank class on immigration. “Sometimes when a group of students gets stuck on something she tends to jump in and facilitate,” Casto said. The students went to Mexico during Winter Break 2006 to develop an immigration resource guide book. “They worked really hard on it and the reason they did all the research is because they found that the general public didn’t understand it,” said Casto, who supports the lobbying that MEChA has done.

Groups like Black Student Union and Asian American Student Association also have shown their support for MEChA’s efforts. This year, CESA is focusing on cross cultural leadership and how to work with other student groups, Pozo said. MEChA helped BSU and AASA with their high school conferences, while those organizations assisted MEChA in fundraising efforts. Members of all three groups are often seen forming bonds in the CESA offices.

Most students who utilize the office come quite often. “It’s weird seeing a student you don’t see regularly,” Pozo said. Like many students, she experiences a sense of community at CESA. “I can come and share my experiences and my frustrations or laugh at some stupid racist comment,” she said.

“Students know each other and it’s a very close knit community,” said Feleti Matagi, director of the university’s Opportunities Scholar Program and former program coordinator for Pacific Islanders at CESA. Many of the students he assisted at CESA told him about incidents of racism. “I’ve had several students who had experiences where they expressed issues in their life and other students disrespected or disregarded it,” he said.

As a high school counselor, Pozo wants to assist students who have been overlooked because of their race and utilize the knowledge she is gaining at CESA today.