For Cynthia Estrada Diaz de Leon, college has been a test of her skills in adapting to new environments – and a testament to her initiative in finding a way to make things happen.
Estrada Diaz de Leon is a first-generation American and a first-generation college student, and she wasn’t sure how she would pay for college. She talked with counselors about options and was able to secure scholarships, including the Wentcher Foundation $10,000 per year scholarship for high-achieving Chicago Public Schools students.
"As a low-income, first-generation Latina, I thought that the university experience would be impossible for me due to financial burdens. However, the U. of I. made it clear to me that I belonged here when advisors and campus recruiters would personally reach out to me and discuss everything that this school could offer me,” Estrada Diaz de Leon said. “Illinois definitely offers resources for students like myself. It’s just a matter of us reaching out and taking advantage of those resources.”
At the U. of I., she got involved with La Casa Cultural Latina and Latinx and Brazilian student organizations. She worked for Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange, providing information about study abroad programs to under-represented students and encouraging them to participate.
Estrada Diaz de Leon is majoring in Global Studies and Portuguese, and her Global Studies major requires a semester of studying abroad. She once again researched the scholarships available so she could afford the trip, and she spent a semester during her sophomore year in Rio de Janeiro, living with a host who did not speak English or Spanish. While studying in Brazil, she also volunteered at a daycare. All of her experiences helped her grow, she said.
"It really enhanced my language skills, being able to ask questions and hold conversations in Portuguese,” Estrada Diaz de Leon said. “When you’re studying abroad, you have to quickly adapt to changing environments all the time. I was becoming more independent and not being afraid to ask questions. It’s about being able to work with diverse groups of people and being more open-minded and more patient with people who don’t speak the same language as you.”
Her experience at Illinois showed her there are many students like her on campus.
“I didn’t feel like I was on my own. Putting myself out there, reaching out to other students and talking to people pushed me through my four years. It opened my eyes to how many other students are going through similar things that I’m going through and to thinking about ways we can help each other,” Estrada Diaz de Leon said.