You might think growing up as one of seven siblings would be daunting, especially if you come into this world as the youngest and feel pressure as the “baby” of the family. Beginning life with multiple challenges might lead some to seek refuge in shyness, creating a world based on solitude and fantasy. But this is not that story!
Today, we’d like to share the story of Maria Espinoza, a 21-year-old Mexican-American who was born in South Carolina. Now a senior at the University of Florida, she has been driven by her life experiences in a close-knit migrant family with strong work ethics who persevered through language, financial, and separation barriers to accomplish, as Maria says, “the impossible.”
Her parents, Maria Rodriguez and Joaquin Espinoza, are migrant farmworkers who brought their children to America from Mexico to find better education opportunities and work.
Immokalee has been the family’s home base since 2003. Maria’s parents were strict about their kids attending school and only began their annual migration the day after school ended. The family regularly moved throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Each year before the first day of school arrived, the family would separate. Her Mom and the school-age kids returned to Immokalee for school and work. Her Dad and brother continued working away from home until fall.
At an early age, Maria recognized the need to help her family and to reach her goals. During seventh grade, a teacher introduced her to The Immokalee Foundation, where she applied and was accepted.
Over the next 9 years, Maria immersed herself in the Foundation’s resources. She is particularly grateful for the support she received from the Foundation staff, a group of Immokalee-based education advocates whom she considers to be “family.”
In addition to financial and academic support, mentorship is one of The Immokalee Foundation’s most essential services. The mentors—a group of extraordinarily giving community volunteers—share their knowledge and life experiences with Foundation students.
For Maria, that also included valuable insights about what it takes to get ahead.
Maria describes “the big shock” of her early college experiences away from home, surrounded by students from all economic backgrounds and new ways of thinking. Even the food and restaurants were different.
Maria’s resiliency helped her adjust, as did increasing involvement in student organizations. In college, her accomplishments demonstrate how she gravitated from “member” to “leadership” roles.
A few of her achievements include being elected by the undergrad student body as a Student Government Senator. In addition, she is a former President of the Mexican/American Student Association.
In her freshman and sophomore years at the University of Florida, she was a Community Engagement Specialist for PODEMOS, a mentorship program for Hispanic-Latinx students.
Her incredible determination to juggle academics and essential student experiences also include working as a student and a research assistant. Throughout high school and college, Maria has worked part-time to get ahead and overcome financial strains.
This past summer, Maria was 1 of 25 students selected nationally for internships at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington, DC. Though COVID-19 forced the internship to be virtual, she considers it a defining moment in her career trajectory due to the professional contacts made and by working side by side with other interns, including those from Ivy League schools.
Maria was selected for a second Washington, DC internship in 2020, but could only accept one. Fortunately, the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association internship was moved to 2021. Maria is one of only four students selected for their experiences as migrant students.
After graduation in May 2021, Maria plans to take a gap year to work in D.C. in labor and immigration policy before applying to law school. Her dream law school? Georgetown University.
As she looks forward to a career in labor and immigration, we asked Maria if she liked the idea of being addressed as Senator or Representative. The twinkle in her eye spoke volumes.
For now, Maria’s focus is on her strong bond with family, community, and making life better for others. What has driven her to achieve so much? “My parents are at the heart of everything I do and accomplish.”
“Eye on Immokalee” is a student profile series from The Immokalee Foundation. The Foundation provides a wide range of educational programs that focus on building pathways to professional careers through support, mentoring and tutoring, and life skills development.
Participating students achieve a 100% high school graduation rate, 100% continue to postsecondary programs, and 91% complete their professional certification programs or college educations.
To learn more about becoming a mentor, volunteering as a career expo speaker or host, donating, or including the Foundation in your estate plans, call 239-430-9122, or visit ImmokaleeFoundation.org.
To send an encouraging note to Maria, email her at EOI@ImmokaleeFoundation.org with the subject line: Maria Espinoza.