Life was not easy for Cristina Delgado when she moved to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, when she was nine years old. Her father had just passed away, and her mother moved Delgado and her sister to Hillsboro, Ore., to give their family a chance at starting a new life.
Delgado didn’t know the language, traditions and values of her new culture. She didn’t have many resources available to her. Her mother worked more than two jobs to help support them, including cleaning schools and farm labor. She eventually got a job at McDonald’s, where she still works more than 10 years later.
Despite the difficult transition, Delgado’s mother always urged her daughters to get involved in their community. “She thought it was a perfect way for us to learn the language a little faster, or to get leadership opportunities,” Delgado says. “My mom always said, ‘If there’s a club, join that club. If something’s going on, do it.”
That advice became easier for Delgado to follow when, in the 8th grade, she and her family moved to Forest Grove, where a large Latino population helped her assimilate.
“Going to school and having classes with other Latino students made it a little easier for me,” Delgado says. “Some of the courses had translators and people who were available to help us in Spanish. There were activities I could join after school and feel like I was really a part of the U.S.”
The newfound comfort, as well as her mother’s encouragement, helped motivate Delgado to take on leadership positions in organizations geared toward helping the community. It became a way of life for her. From the time she was in high school in Forest Grove to now, when she is on the eve of graduating from Oregon State with a degree in political science, Delgado has woven community service into her academic and extracurricular life.
Throughout her time at OSU, Delgado has visited high schools to talk to Latino students and give them information about attending college. She’s mentored high school students, and brought them to the Oregon State campus so they can learn about what life at college is like. Delgado has connected communities with resources and translation services. She’s helped organize a cultural festival on campus every year. She’s participated in PeaceJam. She’s helped produce a Spanish-language version of “The Vagina Monologues” for the past three years in order to call attention often-taboo issues of sexuality in the Latino community.
“I’ve never seen someone so selflessly involved in trying to give back to her community as Cristina. She pushes herself academically not just for the bottom line of good grades but to gain the knowledge and abilities that will put her in a position to help others,” says Joseph Orosco, an OSU philosophy professor whom Delgado counts among her mentors. “She’s a rare student who has taken what she has learned and speaks up for the rights of Latina and indigenous women on campus and in the community.”
Delgado ended up at Oregon State in part because of her community involvement. She was the president of her high school’s Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A) club, where she raised funds, organized rallies about immigration reform, organized English classes for adult farm workers, and visited labor camps to deliver food and clothing. Delgado also interned at an organization that helped community members get GEDs and learn computer and job interviewing skills.
Her leadership potential caught the eye of guidance counselor Jose Torres, an OSU alum who urged Delgado to apply to Oregon State. He told Delgado about the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federal program that provides support to migrant and seasonal farm workers and their children throughout their first year of college. He told her, as well, about some of the M.E.Ch.A organizations at OSU.
I submitted an application in part because he encouraged me to do so,” says Delgado. “The second reason I came was because I was always interested in pursuing an education, taking into account my life experiences. My family sacrificed so much for me bringing me to the U.S. with the hope of continuing my education. For me, going to college, and particularly OSU, was a way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Delgado, like many students, worried about making the transition from family to college life, and wondered what day-to-day life would be like. Would she be successful? Would she make it?
“Sometimes I felt like going back home and staying, but as soon as I came to OSU I began to search for the organizations and ways to get involved so I could feel at home,” Delgado says. The CAMP program certainly helped. It gave Delgado a small cohort of friends who came from similar backgrounds, whom she could rely on if she needed support.
But Delgado also created her own niche at Oregon State with her community involvement, and with great success. When she was a junior she won the $5,000 Leadership in Social Change award, which allowed her to take an internship at PCUN, Oregon’s Farmworker Union. There, she helped manage PCUN’s radio station, which focuses on farmworkers and community members in the Woodburn, Ore. area. She researched the history of PCUN and farmworkers’ struggles in the northwest, including Cesar Chavez’s involvement here. Delgado also helped arrange town hall meetings on immigration reform and sat on committees that strategized agendas for pushing immigration reform.
“As a political science major I’d never had that opportunity,” Delgado says. “The internship gave me a lot of knowledge on creating a strategic agenda and collaborating with nonprofits.”
Last summer, Delgado did a PROMISE internship in the post award office at Oregon State, and created a comprehensive report that documented how visiting scholars and professors from abroad were being paid – at times through a complicated payroll system. The work involved heavy writing, and required Delgado to do extensive research and interviewing to get the information she needed.
“It was a challenge for me, improving my public speaking, writing and research skills,” she says. “And even learning policies and the language of business and visas. Everything was new. But it will make a difference for me in the future.”
Right now, Delgado is deciding where that future will lead her. Her plan is to go to law school, or get a master’s degree that will ultimately help her advise a nonprofit. Either way, her focus will be her community.
“I want to help nonprofits that help underrepresented communities – women’s communities, farmworkers, LGBT communities,” she says. “All of the work I have done through OSU has helped me grow personally or professionally. Every year I learn so much.”