Virginia Vanegas, '18

Virginia Vanegas sits in front of the Rockhurst "R" shrub

When she was only 15 months old, senior Virginia Vanegas made the journey from El Salvador to the United States with her parents.

Hoping to create a better life for the family, Vanegas’ parents first moved to the city of Santa Ana from their village when her father got a job in the city. Soon, they were met with some challenges.

“There were a couple instances,” Vanegas said. “The house that we lived in was broken into and he wasn’t getting paid enough.”

Taking these situations into account, Vanegas’ parents decided, along with some family friends, that they would try moving to the United States.

“They ultimately decided even though we lived in the city it was nothing compared to what life could be like in the U.S. That was when they decided that there was really nothing in El Salvador for us at that point and they wanted to give their kids and their family a better life,” Vanegas said.

Vanegas and her family came to the United States under temporary protected status. They were given a Social Security number and the right to work in the U.S. Growing up, Vanegas always believed that her timeline would be different than her peers because she did not hold full citizenship.

“I never thought that I was going to be able to go to college. I always envisioned myself not working in a factory like my parents, but maybe some receptionist job kind of like how I have now,” Vanegas said. “Because I wasn’t a citizen, I wasn’t going to receive financial aid. I knew that if I did not receive financial aid, there was no way I was going to be able to afford post-secondary education.”

Vanegas never focused too much on what kind of career she wanted, because she was never sure that she would be able to pursue it.

“In junior high they would always ask you what you wanted to be when you grow up and I was always like, ‘Well, I want to be this, but I don’t know if I can be it,’” Vanegas said.

Her family remained on a waiting list to become residents for 15 years following their entry into the United States. During her freshman year of high school, her family was called to interview for residency.

“That was the first point where I thought, ‘OK wait, after being a resident for five years I can apply for citizenship. So five years from this, I can totally do this sort of thing,’” Vanegas said. “When I became a resident is when I became eligible for financial aid too. At that point, I knew I could apply for it. I didn’t have to be a citizen in order to get financial aid.”

Vanegas began her college search the March of her senior year of high school. Her search proved to be a learning experience both for her and her parents.

“My parents were very much intending me to go to State Fair which is the community college in Sedalia. They said, ‘It’s community college, it’s less expensive, you can get your college degree there,’” Vanegas said. “I told them an associate’s degree is not the same as a bachelor’s degree. I had to learn everything for myself, too, and try to explain to them. They didn’t really understand it so I told them they had to trust me at some point.”

She looked at Avila University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Rockhurst, visiting all three in the same day, although she was skeptical about visiting Rockhurst.

“My parents begged me to just go and look, go and look and visit,” Vanegas said. “I thought it was not going to do anything because I couldn’t afford it. When I did my campus visit and sat down with my admissions counselor, he told me, ‘Alright, this is what we can offer here, this is what you would owe’, and I was like, ‘What? Come again?’ He said, ‘Yeah, this would be the total amount.’ And I told him, ‘You’re kidding, sign me up.’ I put down a deposit the day that I did my tour.”

Vanegas and her family became eligible to apply for citizenship in January 2016, the same year as the most recent presidential election. The application was costly, and they looked to other family members to help out.

“During the summer, as more of the candidates were winding down, we just didn’t know what was going to happen to the immigration system. If there’s a time to do it, it might as well be now. So, our family and extended family pulled together and one of my cousins offered lending us the money to apply.”

They were notified in September 2016 that their citizenship test would take place in December. Vanegas was excited to move forward with this new chapter of her life, but also faced some mixed feelings.

“When I saw how close I was to becoming a citizen, I couldn’t help but feel guilty or undeserving as opposed to a lot of other immigrants who are nowhere near there,” Vanegas said. “Some of these people have been here just as long as I have and although it was difficult for me, I don’t think I am any more worthy or deserving of having completed it. I was internally struggling with that, but also trying to be happy for myself.”

During and after the ceremony, Vanegas received an outpouring of support from the Rockhurst community.

“It was indescribable, because I never really openly talked about my immigration position when I was in high school. Not a lot of people were interested in it at my high school,” Vanegas said. “As I started getting more involved with social justice organizations like Voices for Justice, and built relationships with faculty members and staff members like Bill Kriege (associate director of campus ministry) and friends, I just started talking about it. It was always a part of who I was, but it just became my narrative at that point.”

Vanegas had several friends come to her ceremony, but hadn’t realized the extent to which people at school were invested in her story.

“I remember Asha (Molina, senior) sent me the picture that Rockhurst had put on their official social media pages that evening. Still to this day I will see people around on campus that I maybe haven’t seen in a couple semesters. They’ll say, ‘Hey, congratulations I saw that you became a citizen,’” Vanegas said. “I was truly surprised. I got a lot of support and it was very nice.”

Moving forward, Vanegas is excited to use her freedom for good.

“At this point it’s just given me the liberty to say that there is nothing standing in my way to stand up for what I think is right and just,” Vanegas said.