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When Gabriela Buitrón Vera and her family immigrated to the United States from Ecuador, she didn’t know what to expect.
“When I first moved to Chicago, it was completely different from what I imagined,” Buitrón Vera said. “The idea I had of the United States was what I saw in movies; everything was white from what I saw in the media, but I was happy to realize that Chicago was much more diverse. I could see myself reflected in the community.”
Buitrón Vera attended Taft High School and Wilbur Wright College before transferring to Northeastern Illinois University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2011. Now, she is just weeks away from earning a Ph.D. in Spanish from the University of Colorado Boulder and starting a new position as a lecturer at Binghamton University in New York. Once her degree is conferred, Buitrón Vera will become the first person in her family to earn a Ph.D.
“I graduated from high school in 2005, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue with college,” Buitrón Vera said. “After I finished my associate degree in 2009, I decided to transfer to Northeastern. I’ve been in the U.S. now for about 20 years. At that point I’d been here for more than 13 years. I wanted to have roots with my language and culture. The Spanish program at Northeastern gave me the opportunity to return to my roots.”
Buitrón Vera’s successes are all the more significant because she is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in mid-June.
“DACA has been key in supporting my goals, but I think we need something more than DACA now,” Buitrón Vera said. “I feel a lot of DACA recipients feel our lives are on hold and then we need to renew our lives every two years and we don’t have a sense of security—at all.”
While at Northeastern, Buitrón Vera was part of the group of students who initiated the Undocumented Resilient and Organized Club (URO), which became the foundation for Northeastern to institutionalize resources for undocumented students.
“Institutionalized undocumented student support would not exist the way it does at NEIU if it wasn't for URO,” said Luvia Moreno, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Undocumented Student Resources. “Sometime around 2011, a group of NEIU undocumented students came together to talk about the challenges and barriers they were facing on our campus and asked staff and administrators why some of the resources and opportunities available to most students were not open to them. This prompted concerned faculty and staff to begin a committee that would begin the work of making NEIU a more welcoming environment for undocumented students. Almost 10 years later, NEIU has opened its talent, merit and foundation scholarships to undocumented students.”
According to Moreno, nearly 300 faculty, staff and administrators have also participated in undocumented student ally training, and policies across key areas of the university have been changed to ensure undocumented students face fewer barriers from admission to graduation.
Buitrón Vera’s passion for activism didn’t end when she left Northeastern. Now, she’s hoping her degree will give her the opportunity to work with other students and motivate them to accomplish their goals as well. As part of her doctoral studies, Buitrón Vera focused on Latin American leadership with a focus on Mexico. At Binghamton University, Buitrón Vera will teach Border Studies.
“My profession gives me the opportunity to be a mentor to students and also with people who are not part of the academic community,” Buitrón Vera said. “When I was at Northeastern, I was able to take advantage of all the resources they provided. When I was applying to graduate school, Northeastern was able to get help with my applications, updating my CV and some of the resources helped me polish that. I think I can do that now and help people who may not have those skills yet because of their environment. For example, sometimes as a first-generation student, I think most of our parents are not equipped because of the language or the CVs are done differently in their countries. So, I think having someone to rely on not only in the classroom but also in the bureaucratic aspect also helps a lot of students navigate the university setting.”
Aside from academic and professional assistance, Buitrón Vera has been active in participating in workshops to share stories with other undocumented students about transitioning from high school to college, something that she started doing at Northeastern when URO took trips to high schools in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, working with many other first-generation students whose families immigrated from Mexico.
“Throughout my entire career and personal interests, because I have been living in the U.S. for 20 years, I have been touched by the Mexican community and, of course, by borders and all that entails,” Buitrón Vera said. “So my lectureship at Binghamton University is my ideal job, to work with a community that also has a lot of first-generation students. The school is very multidisciplinary, so I’m very happy to be there.”
Northeastern still holds a very special place in Buitrón Vera’s heart. She even asked Northeastern Associate Professor of Spanish Brandon Bisbey to be part of her doctoral dissertation committee, a role he was happy to take even though she had never been a student of his.
“Gabriela expressed a deep feeling of connection to NEIU and wanted someone from our faculty to participate in this important moment in her professional and personal life,” Bisbey said. “I agreed and was very impressed by her highly original dissertation, which was written in my area of specialization (contemporary Mexican literature and culture). It was only after her defense that I learned that she is a DACA recipient. Her lectureship appointment in Border Studies at Binghamton University is a major accomplishment in today's economy and a testament to her excellence in her field. All in all, she is an excellent example of what NEIU alumni are capable of achieving, and I hope that her personal and professional trajectory will inspire our students, faculty and staff as it has inspired me.”
With her pending move to New York, Buitrón Vera is reflecting on the lessons she learned at Northeastern to transition into her new role, even in the midst of COVID-19.
“At heart, I’m a migrant, so I love traveling and learning about new people and new regions,” Buitrón Vera said. “These times have been difficult because of the pandemic, but I have learned through Northeastern that immigrants are very well-equipped to navigate these times because they have always been placed on the front lines and they have the ability to change and readapt to circumstances. It’s what I’ve always done and what I will continue to do through my teaching, research and activism.”
Photo: Gabriela Buitrón Vera by Laura Waldron Photography