woman standing with street behind her

Defying Stereotypes and Paying It Forward

Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first in her family to graduate from college and now she’s helping other first-generation students get to the finish line, too.

At her Clark High School graduation ceremony, it dawned on the UNLV-bound Ivet Aldaba-Valera that if she hit her goal, she would be the first in her family not only to graduate from high school, but also the first to earn a college degree.

“I remember walking across the stage and thinking this wouldn’t be the last time,” Aldaba-Valera said. “In four years, I will walk across the stage at the Thomas & Mack Center.”

Aldaba-Valera turned her tassels twice more, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in human services counseling from the UNLV College of Education in 2007 and a master’s degree in social work from the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs in 2009. She is now a lecturer in the university's School of Social Work.

She sees her academic journey as mirroring that of many first-generation students at UNLV.

Her parents emigrated from Mexico to El Paso, Texas, but did not know how to speak English well.

Writing did not come easy to Aldaba-Valera. One of her first papers in an English-language class was returned to her with red pen marks riddled throughout the pages.

“I felt like a horrible human being,” she said.

But she also was determined to change mainstream societal views that portrayed Latinas as pregnant by 15 and married by 20, Aldaba-Valera explained.

“I got my drive from that — to defy statistics that are painted on young Latina women,” she said. “I am going to turn that negativity and the stereotypes and defy them, which pushed me to pursue higher education. I made education my baby.”

Her post-graduation career has been dedicated to helping students overcome barriers and motivating Latino youth to pursue higher education.

Outside of teaching, Aldaba-Valera helps high school students through the Latino Youth Leadership Conference, which introduces young adults to higher education. She serves as a commissioner on the state Juvenile Justice Commission and is on the executive board for the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs Alumni Association.

She remembers what it was like to be a college student, making the attempt to find peers, students, or faculty members whose background resembled hers. She wanted to find people who could relate to her upbringing, culture, or values. She didn’t want to feel alone and doesn’t want today's students to feel that way.

“Don’t give up. Don’t let the situation defeat you," Aldaba-Valera tells students. "There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

She credits UNLV’s commitment to diversity and programs for students from all walks of life — from transfer students to veterans to first-generation students. She recently shared her motivation for helping students on the Different, Daring, Diverse podcast, produced by KUNV and UNLV's The Intersection, a resource center for students. 

“It’s probably one my favorite parts of being in the classroom. I walk in and I tell these students, 'Look around you; this is a classroom full of beautiful colors,' Aldaba-Valera said.

And she can share her own experience to inspire them.

Because her parents had limited English language skills, Aldaba-Valera helped them understand documents in the mail and translated conversations at doctor visits. Her mother was unable to drive so Valera learned bus routes and helped her mother get around town.

“I was the one to go with them and at a very young age I had to learn how to be attentive to these issues, to these ‘grown-up’ issues,” Aldaba-Valera said.

She knew her childhood was a little different from her peers because of the added responsibilities. But the experiences shaped her into a caregiver and has helped her in the social work field.

“I looked at my parents’ plight and their migration experience to seek a better life. They inspired me to attain higher education and become the first to graduate high school and go to college.”

She recalls her dad encouraging her to study whatever she wanted, so long as she continued her education. “That will open up opportunities for you," he said. "We don’t want you to depend on anyone."

“I took that to heart at a young age.”

Learn how you can get involved in UNLV programs through the UNLV Alumni Association.

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