Lifting “Chicas” into College

Her experience and ideas make alumna Itzel Chávez Gómez the bridge to higher ed for Latinas in Oregon.

This article first appeared in Around the O on April 12, 2023.

As a child, Itzel Chávez Gómez had no mentors to offer examples of what she could do in life. Her aspirations were based on only her favorite TV shows, CSI: Miami and Criminal Minds—she considered working for the FBI someday.

Without guidance on a path to college and career, she says, “I just knew that I had to go and do something better and make something of myself, but I didn’t know what that was.”

Chávez Gómez is determined to help other Latinas chart a smoother course through college than her own. As the college and career coordinator for a nonprofit organization near Portland, she’s turning her ideas into action to ensure that Latina women have a rewarding experience in higher education.

Finding her voice

Chávez Gómez grew up in Beaverton, attending predominantly White schools. “It was very isolating,” she says. “I was usually one of the only Brown people in any space I walked in.”

But at the University of Oregon, she found courses, community, and mentorship that changed everything.

In ethnic studies and sociology classes, Chávez Gómez studied immigration and the disproportionate rates of incarceration of Black and Brown people. “Those classes really just blew up my world,” she says, and she began to think about how she could contribute to social justice. She decided to major in general social sciences, a multidisciplinary, undergraduate program in the College of Arts and Sciences that prepares students for success in an interconnected global environment.

Chávez Gómez also began working at the UO Women’s Center, eventually serving as the sexual violence prevention and education coordinator. There, she found her first mentor, Director Fatima Roohi Pervaiz, and a community of women that helped her feel comfortable in her own skin, find her voice, and step out of her comfort zone.

“For so long, I felt so trapped and so alone in my identity and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life,” Chávez Gómez says. “And then, just those few years that I worked there changed my world and changed my trajectory.”

Chávez Gómez “provided that emotional support that they needed.” —Leticia Aguilar, Adelante Mujeres

Building Chicas in College

After graduating in 2018, Chávez Gómez was hired by Adelante Mujeres (“Women Rise Up”), a nonprofit organization in Forest Grove working to build a more just society by empowering Latinas to lead. As an advocate in the Chicas youth development program, she began leading after-school activities for middle and high school students, becoming the type of mentor she wished she’d had as a child.

Then in 2020, amid the upheaval of the pandemic, Chávez Gómez set to work building a new program, Chicas in College, supporting Latina/e college students throughout Oregon.

College readiness has long been a focus of Adelante Mujeres, which says the vast majority of participants in the youth program have enrolled in post-secondary education in recent years. But the organization has been unable to keep up with and support students beyond high school; they asked Chávez Gómez to help bridge that gap.

She comes to the work with an intimate sense of what students need. Having been a first-generation college student, she has walked in their shoes. She also brings a passion for advocacy, a flame that was sparked and fueled at the UO.

The timing was fortuitous. As the pandemic hit, students needed more support than ever. Chávez Gómez was there for the high school seniors, some of whom were the first in their families to graduate, says Leticia Aguilar, associate director of education programs at Adelante Mujeres. Chávez Gómez “cheered them up and provided that emotional support that they needed, making sure that they were still receiving the recognition they deserved,” Aguilar says.

As the students entered college, Chávez Gómez stayed with them, offering one-on-one mentorship, regular meetups, and workshops. Initially open only to graduates of the Chicas high school program, Chávez Gómez expanded Chicas in College to welcome all women and nonbinary Latina/e college students in Oregon; the program now supports over ninety students from around the state.

Elizabeth Leos Gonzalez, a second-year student in early childhood education and family studies at Portland Community College, says Chicas in College provides a place where “I can be comfortable and get together with more of my people. It’s like counseling, self-care, just being there for each other. It’s like a family.”

Through the program, Chávez Gómez provides continuous guidance on how to make college financially feasible, which helped UO alumna Rubby Marquez, BA ’22 (Spanish, journalism: advertising), secure scholarships that allowed her to graduate debt free.

Chávez Gómez “made it her mission to make our college experience a lot better than hers was, just make it more seamless,” says Marquez, now a media coordinator at an advertising agency.

New ideas to grow the program

Even with financial aid and scholarships, Chávez Gómez still sees many students struggling to pay bills. Costs for books, housing, food, and health care often aren’t covered by scholarships, she says.

Chávez Gómez persuaded Adelante Mujeres to adopt an emergency grant program. In the 2021–22 academic year, the Chicas emergency grant helped seventeen college students in Oregon cover extra costs.

Leos Gonzalez, who used the grant to help cover rent and purchase school supplies for her five-year-old daughter, is now one of three paid interns for Chicas in College, helping to plan events, mentor high school seniors, and provide one-on-one support for other college students. The idea of employing Chicas in College participants as interns? That was Chávez Gómez’s, too.

Her next idea is to fund renewable scholarships, particularly for undocumented students, who are ineligible for many existing scholarship programs.

Under Chávez Gómez, Aguilar says, the Chicas in College program has already grown far beyond the original vision. She’s excited to see where Chávez Gómez takes it next.

“The thing with Itzel is that she not only has ideas, but also, she acts on them,” Aguilar says. “She takes the initiative to understand what it takes to get there and does the work it takes to get that idea to happen.”

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  • Government and Community Relations Legislative Office Assistant