RENO, Nev. (AP) – A University of Nevada, Reno student who was homeless during part of her time attending high school in North Las Vegas has been named the winner of a prestigious national scholarship worth $30,000.
Ivon Padilla-Rodriguez is one of only about 60 students in the country who will receive the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. She was among 654 applicants, including students from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Duke universities.
The money is to be used toward graduate education in law, social work, education, international affairs or public administration, health or policy.
Padilla-Rodriguez graduated as a valedictorian from Canyon Springs High School in 2011. The 20-year-old junior at UNR says she hopes to attend law school and eventually become a federal judge and follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Sonia Sotomayor, to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
"I'm going to put this money toward my graduate education, and my ultimate goal is to become a legal advocate for the Latino community," Padilla-Rodriguez told the Reno-Gazette Journal.
Emma Sepulveda, director of UNR's Latino Research Center, has served as Padilla-Rodriguez's mentor.
"Ivon is an amazing young woman," she said. "She's extremely bright, and when she also sees big opportunities, she is extremely focused and she doesn't let anything stop her from getting where she wants to go."
Earlier this year, Padilla-Rodriguez was named one of the 10 Top College Women of 2014 by Glamour magazine. She appears in the April 11 edition and, along with a $3,000 scholarship, she will travel with the other winners April 17 to New York City, where she will team up with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the nation's first female Hispanic governor. They will take part in workshops and social events hosted by Glamour.
Her future didn't always look so bright. For a time during her junior year in high school, Padilla-Rodriguez and her mother were homeless, living out of their car and sleeping on couches belonging to friends and sometimes strangers. Often she would learn of her sleeping arrangement when her mother picked her up from school.
"For three months, we had to look for somewhere to eat; we had to look for somewhere to sleep," Padilla-Rodriguez told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "My mom would go to Catholic Charities for food."
During those days, Padilla-Rodriguez found a safe haven at an after-school improvisational theater program in Las Vegas. In 2012, she co-founded Spotlight, a free improvisational theater program in Reno for youth.
"There were times that I thought about dropping out of (high) school, but eventually I really realized that for me, school, particularly after-school theater programs, were my big refuge, and they are ultimately what gave me strength," Padilla-Rodriguez said.
While studying abroad, she taught improvisational theater to orphans in Costa Rica, Mexico and Cuba.
She is one of 60 college students in the nation invited to present her project, "Significance of Comprehensive Immigration Reform for Undocumented Families of Latin American Descent in the U.S." at the 18th annual Posters on the Hill event April 28 and 29 in Washington, D. C.
Sepulveda will accompany Padilla-Rodriguez to the nation's capital, where they are scheduled to meet with Nevada's congressional delegates and other political leaders.
"Ivon is determined to become the next (Sonia) Sotomayor, and I have no doubt she's going to do it," Sepulveda said. "And the wonderful thing is she has never forgotten where she came from. The more she does, the more desire she has to help other people."