Selena Huapilla-Perez is a long way from home and a long way from the fields where she used to work with her family as a migrant worker. Selected as this year’s MSU Convocation speaker, she is the first Latina in MSU’s history to be chosen for this honor. As Convocation speaker, she will represent the 5,677 undergraduate degree candidates who are graduating from Michigan State University this weekend.
Having faced many challenges and uncertainties during her academic career, on Sunday, May 5, her undergraduate journey will come to an end as she receives a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities with a double minor in Chicano/Latino Studies and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at the College of Arts & Letters commencement ceremony.
From Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the country, a community that is 71.6 percent Hispanic, 21.4 percent Black, and 5.13 percent White, with 80 percent of the community fluent in a non-English language.
I went from working in the fields with my parents to coming to Michigan State University and having opportunities beyond what I imagined for myself or my family…I was able to take my dreams and the dreams of my parents from the fields to the classroom.
“The majority of people who live there live under a poverty line that should not exist today, my parents included,” said Huapilla-Perez, who, growing up, migrated with her family to nine different states – Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas – where they worked in the fields picking tomatoes, jalapenos, cucumbers, bell peppers, and corn.
“I went from working in the fields with my parents to coming to Michigan State University and having opportunities beyond what I imagined for myself or my family,” Huapilla-Perez said. “With Michigan State, I was able to take my dreams and the dreams of my parents from the fields to the classroom.”
Huapilla-Perez will deliver the student commencement address during MSU’s Convocation on Friday, May 3, at 1 p.m. at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center.
“It’s exciting, but above all, it’s an honor to represent the Class of 2019 as the convocation speaker,” Huapilla-Perez said. “I am from out-of-state; I’m a woman of color; I’m a daughter of migrant farm workers. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to continue their education. They immigrated to the United States at the ages of 14 and 15 and ended their academic careers at 7th and 8th grade. I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school and come to college. I am far from home, and it’s just an honor to be able to do this, to be representing Latinos doing this. And more than anything, to be graduating and getting the degree that is for my parents.
“Every award I have ever received is for my parents. The internships, the fellowships I pursue are because of the values they have instilled in me of serving other people and serving them to my best capacity. It’s always for them.”
The Journey to Michigan State
But the journey to get to this point hasn’t been easy. Her senior year of high school, when her friends were talking about college, Huapilla-Perez says she wasn’t part of those conversations. Her parents, however, encouraged her to go as long as it was somewhere not too far.
“Because I was first-generation, they weren’t expecting me to do anything bigger than what was in our comfort zone, or what they were willing to help me pay for school,” Huapilla-Perez said, and so she applied to the community college 40 minutes away from home. That all changed when she met Elias Lopez, Recruiter for MSU’s Migrant Student Services CAMP Program, who gave a presentation at her high school.
“I didn’t know how far Michigan was or even where Michigan State was located, but I wanted to get out of class so I went to the presentation, which I wasn’t really interested in because I wasn’t thinking higher education was for me,” she said. “Then I heard this man, who also was Latino, talk about how he came from migrant farm working parents, his struggles of getting into higher education, what Michigan State did for him, and how he was able to get his bachelor’s and then his master’s degrees. Just hearing how passionate he was about higher education and how much he wanted to help us be part of that narrative too, after that day, if nothing else, I knew I wanted to go to Michigan State.”
When her acceptance letter from MSU arrived, “that was one of the happiest moments I have experienced.” However, her parents were less excited and told her she wasn’t going that far and that she should stay in Florida.
I wasn’t thinking higher education was for me, but then I heard this man, who also was Latino, talk about how he came from migrant farm working parents, his struggles of getting into higher education, what Michigan State did for him.
“I was so discouraged and so I didn’t do anything with my letter,” Huapilla-Perez said. “But then one day, Elias Lopez called and asked if I was coming to Michigan State and if they needed to reserve my spot or give it to another student. In that moment, I said yes, I am coming. I don’t know how I am getting there, but I am going to Michigan State. This happened right before I was going to church with my parents, and I remember the entire time sitting in church praying to God that my parents weren’t going to be super mad or that the journey to Michigan State wasn’t going to be anything harder than I could handle.”
After church, Huapilla-Perez told her parents she was going to Michigan State.
“There was definitely some silence on the ride home,” she said. “But once we got home, my dad was very supportive. It took my mom a little bit longer just because I am the first in my family to leave home and to leave that far from home.”
Arriving on Campus
Before coming to MSU her freshman year, Huapilla-Perez never had a campus tour and had never even been to Michigan.
“I didn’t know where I was going, and when I got here, I thought this place was bigger than anything I had ever seen, so it all felt so scary and exciting,” she said. “I didn’t even give my family a correct goodbye because I knew that if they said anything that I would turn around and go back home with them just because it was all scary and new.”
It was difficult at first for Huapilla-Perez to adjust to living so far from home in a place that was so foreign to her.
“Those first three months, I couldn’t even speak on the phone with my family because everyone was in tears – my siblings, my parents, even me,” she said. “I realized that maybe I shouldn’t be here, but my parents said you decided to come here so now you are going to make us proud. So I hope that graduation, it’s going to be the day.”
Besides the Michigan winters, which were a new experience for Huapilla-Perez who had never experienced snow nor owned any winter clothes, she also experienced culture shock.
I realized that maybe I shouldn’t be here, but my parents said you decided to come here so now you are going to make us proud. So I hope that graduation, it’s going to be the day.
“I come from a community of color where people looked like me, talked like me, had similar backgrounds like mine, and coming here I didn’t see many people of color,” she said. “I was the only person of color in most of my classrooms, and I was forgetting my Spanish because there was no one that I could practice it with.”
One place that made her feel at home was the College Assistant Migrant Program (CAMP) office in Holden Hall.
“Whenever I go into the CAMP office, I can hear music playing that I know. I hear people speaking Spanish. I see other Brown people like me, Latinx like me,” Huapilla-Perez said. “So whenever I am there, it feels like home.”
Becoming Actively Involved
Huapilla-Perez also became actively involved in several organizations, programs, and student groups, which was a new experience for her.
“Because I was migrant, I didn’t have an opportunity to join many things when I was growing up,” she said. “So coming here everything seemed exciting to me and I wanted to be a part of everything.”
But after her first semester, she still had questions of whether she belonged.
“I remember I had a conversation with a professor and she told me that ‘if you don’t see people like you, you need to be the people like you in those organizations,’ and it was because of the lack of people like me in spaces like these that made me want to take a step up,” Huapilla-Perez said. “That’s why I got so involved.”
Now, Huapilla-Perez not only holds campus-level positions she also sits on three national boards – the Youth Advisory Board for The Steve Fund, Student Advisory Council for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), for which she is the Michigan representative, and the Latinas on Fast Track program for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
It was because of the lack of people like me in spaces like these that made me want to take a step up. That’s why I got so involved.
She also has volunteered a lot in the greater Lansing community with organizations serving underserved populations, including Cristo Rey Community Center, the Refugee Development Center, Lewton Elementary School’s Spanish Immersion Program, Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center, Haven House of East Lansing, and the Ronald McDonald House of East Lansing.
Choosing a Major
When Huapilla-Perez first came to MSU, she was an Elementary Education major, but later changed her major to Interdisciplinary Humanities.
“The education field is where my passion lies, especially because of how it impacted me through my K-12, being a migrant farm worker and moving to different schools three to four times a year based on where my parents were migrating,” she said. “But I thought about how I want to impact students locally, and I can do that by being a teacher, but with this new major, it had me thinking about ways I can impact students on a bigger scale, not just locally or at the state level, but nationally.”
Within the Interdisciplinary Humanities major, the course work for Huapilla-Perez has focused on catering to underrepresented communities within the education field, which is another area she is passionate about.
“I want to work within education at the federal level,” she said. “One day I want to end up working at the U.S. Department of Education, maybe even the first Latina Secretary of Education.”
She already has a taste of what it’s like working for the U.S. Department of Education. This past summer, she had an internship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH).
However, even though it is her dream to work there, when she first learned she was one of only four students from across the country selected for the internship, she was going to turn it down because she couldn’t afford an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C. But thanks to funding she received from MSU’s National Migrant Scholars Internship Initiative (NMSI) and the College of Arts & Letters, she became the first person ever admitted to the program from Michigan State University.
The education field is where my passion lies, especially because of how it impacted me through my K-12, being a migrant farm worker and moving to different schools three to four times a year based on where my parents were migrating.
“This internship allowed me to look at education at the national level and do a lot of research on the trajectory of communities, especially on the trajectory of Hispanics in the United States. It was amazing being able to network and meet so many national Latino leaders and see the many ways I can impact education and the different avenues I can take,” Huapilla-Perez said. “When I returned to MSU, I then was able to connect the dots within my courses and within my Chicano/Latino Studies classes.”
It was at the end of her junior year that Huapilla-Perez decided to pick up a minor in Chicano/Latino Studies, which has taught her so much about her own culture.
“I wanted to know more about my history, and I was willing to take more time to do a fifth year to complete the Chicano/Latino Studies program,” she said. “I am very thankful that Michigan State has a Chicano/Latino Studies program. I learned about things I didn’t even know and wasn’t expecting coming here. Growing up, I never really heard anything about my culture, my history, besides Cesar Chavez. Now I know about so many more people who have built the Chicano/Latino Studies movements across the country. I’ve learned about the history of Mexico, even things my parents being from Mexico didn’t know about their own history.”
During her time at MSU, Huapilla-Perez has completed three study abroad programs. Her first study abroad was the International Engagement in Mexico program, which she participated in as a freshman and it taught her “the importance of education being the passport out of poverty.” Then her sophomore year, she spent a semester abroad in the Philippines at the University of the Philippines Los Banos.
“In the Philippines, I was volunteering at a school with the highest poverty level in the region and was taking trips to see Indigenous Filipinos. I remember my classroom being a mountain and I was teaching Indigenous Filipinos English,” Huapilla-Perez said. “It reminded me that some of the best classrooms aren’t bound by four walls, but rather unbound in the beauty of the mountains, oceans, and skies.”
At the end of her junior year, she participated in the Learning, Technology, and Culture in Europe program where she traveled to four different countries – The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany – and learned about their education systems.
Some of the best classrooms aren’t bound by four walls, but rather unbound in the beauty of the mountains, oceans, and skies.
“It was a very interesting time to go to Europe with the large influx of Syrian refugees coming in,” Huapilla-Perez said. “We saw what they were doing to accept and acknowledge these new residents coming in and what their education system was doing to support them.”
Her junior year, she was hired as a Study Abroad Peer Advisor for the Office for Education Abroad, a position she held for three years.
“Studying abroad has been one of my favorite things to do,” Huapilla-Perez said, “and I love helping other students navigate their way through study abroad opportunities and helping them learn about these opportunities early on.”
Awards and Honors
Huapilla-Perez has won numerous awards during her time at MSU and is a finalist for the Richard Lee Featherstone Endowed Prize, a $4,000 scholarship awarded to an outstanding senior to be used for further growth and development, travel, or graduate study.
“My first award at Michigan State was the CAMP Scholar of the Month and that propelled me to want to do more,” Huapilla-Perez said.
Most recently, she received the Leader of the Year and the Individual Campus Impact Award, both university-wide honors presented at the Department of Student Life Leadership Awards ceremony. She also received the Presidential Spartan Volunteer Service Award presented by the Center for Service & Civic Engagement and the Tracy Dobson Award for Undergraduate Student Activist presented by the Center for Gender in Global Context.
Every step of the way, I have had people help me get to where I want to be. And when it felt like there was a door that was closed, there were people on campus that were willing to open another door for me.
“The work that I do, I never do it to receive awards or recognition, I do it because I am passionate about it,” Huapilla-Perez said. “I also recognize that I didn’t get here by myself. I’ve had the support of so many people. I always tell my parents and my friends who are faculty and staff that this award belongs to them because I would not be at this finish line had it not been for their support. Every step of the way, I’ve had people help me get to where I want to be. And when it felt like there was a door that was closed, there were people on campus that were willing to open another door for me.”
Huapilla-Perez decided to apply to be the student convocation speaker in order to place herself, a Latina woman, in this role where none have been before.
“Traditionally, there hasn’t been many Latinx students who have taken on these leadership roles here at Michigan State,” she said. “So what better way to leave Michigan State and to have an impact than to be the convocation speaker – as a Latina woman and as a daughter of migrant farm workers, these identities that I hold, have been traditionally underrepresented.”
Huapilla-Perez has four siblings, two older sisters, a younger sister, and a younger brother. They all are coming with their parents to see her graduate. This will be only the second time that her family has been to MSU’s campus. The first was when they dropped her off at the beginning of her freshman year.
“There have been countless awards ceremonies that I have had and they have never been able to attend one of those. It’s just a long drive. I’m five states away from home, and it’s definitely hard for them to come,” Huapilla-Perez said. “But this one thing that they’re coming to is what I am most excited about. This is going to be very special for me and for them.”
Her younger sister and younger brother would like to follow in their older sister’s footsteps someday and study at MSU. Huapilla-Perez has a special message for them in her commencement speech and for all future Spartans.
We didn’t get this far because we are better than others. We have gotten this far because we have dedicated ourselves to be better for others.
“In my speech, I talk about times you might think you don’t belong,” Huapilla-Perez said. “I wrote that with my own personal experience in mind, but also thinking about future generations to come, and my siblings who are part of that future generation. I want them to know that this is a place for them, that higher education at MSU is possible for them.”
But one of the biggest messages of her speech is for her fellow graduates and that is: “We didn’t get this far because we are better than others. We have gotten this far because we have dedicated ourselves to be better for others. My parents remind me that a college degree doesn’t make me better than the next person, but a college degree can help me make this a better place for the next person.”
This summer, Huapilla-Perez has an internship with the Dream Fellowship at UCLA for students who do social justice rights activism work and where she will work with underserved, underrepresented communities. Then in September, she will move to Denver, Colorado, to spend a year of service working for City Year at schools that serve low-income, first-generation immigrants, and communities of color.
I have been blessed beyond belief with the opportunities that have come my way because I’ve attended this university…Though its 1,376 miles from home, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
After completing a year with City Year Denver, Huapilla-Perez hopes to return to MSU to work on a master’s degree in the College of Education.
“Applying to Michigan State was one of the biggest steps that I could have taken for myself. And if there is one thing I am sure of is that I am so proud to be a Michigan State Spartan,” she said. “I have been blessed beyond belief with the opportunities that have come my way because I’ve attended this university. Everything that I have been able to do was something that I didn’t know was available to me. I think that everything happens for a reason. I was meant to be at Michigan State. Though its 1,376 miles from home, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”