Editor’s note: The Public Education Foundation helps transform the lives of Nevadans in many ways. In this article, we report on Ivon Padilla-Rodriguez’s incredible journey.

By Taylor Tyrell

Ivón Padilla-Rodriguez endured tough times during high school, including being homeless for awhile, but that didn’t deter her. Not only was she the first person in her family to graduate from high school, but she also was valedictorian of Canyon Springs High School in 2011.

That would be a signature achievement for nearly anyone. But Padilla-Rodriguez, the daughter of undocumented parents, was just starting – and in a few short years she would receive national acclaim for her accomplishments.

As a high school senior, she received The Public Education Foundation’s Flora English Creative Writing Scholarship, which was instrumental in helping fund her first year at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Padilla-Rodriguez notes that The Public Education Foundation’s scholarship “alleviated a huge financial burden” from her shoulders, allowing her to fully devote time to her education and helping community organizations.

“The Public Education Foundation was one of the first organizations to invest in me,” Padilla-Rodriguez says. Instead of having to get a job to pay for courses and textbooks, the scholarship enabled her during the first year of college to “serve disadvantaged young people and immigrants,” ultimately helping start several local and international education initiatives and conducting grant-funded research.

The work in and out of the classroom by Padilla Rodriguez, who was enrolled in UNR’s Honors Program, was remarkable:

  • She won a $100,000 scholarship from Dr. Pepper during her freshman year at UNR. Five finalists, based on thousands of applications, earned the opportunity to participate in a football-throwing competition during halftime of the SEC championship game, and she won the top prize.
  • Padilla-Rodriguez was one of only 60 college juniors in the U.S. to be awarded a $30,000 scholarship after being chosen as a Truman Scholar, a prestigious distinction given to those who are committed to public service leadership.
  • Glamour magazine selected Padilla-Rodriguez as one of its Top 10 College Women in 2014, a determination based on academic accomplishments, leadership potential and service involvement.
  • Padilla-Rodriguez and Emma Sepulveda Pulvirenti, the director of UNR’s Latino Research Center, co-authored a book in 2015 about undocumented students, “The Country I Call Home.”

Today, Padilla-Rodriguez is working on obtaining a doctoral degree in history from an Ivy League institution, Columbia University. Her research is focusing on the implementation of 20th century immigration policies, including their impact on children, and Latino immigration to the U.S.

Born in East Los Angeles, Padilla-Rodriguez and her parents moved when she was 13 to North Las Vegas. Her parents eventually gained citizenship, but she understood the difficulty of being undocumented in the country.

When it came time for college, she chose the University of Nevada, Reno, because staying in state was affordable and she did not want to incur a large amount of debt in her undergraduate education.

She is still using scholarship funds to pay for her graduate education at Columbia University, and she will have some left over to either continue her education at Columbia or pursue a law degree.

Padilla-Rodriguez, during her research in pursuit of a doctoral degree in history, has developed a realization of how important it is to understand the experience of immigrants, such as her parents, along with policy considerations.

On a personal level, she has never lost faith in her abilities and her opportunities to make a difference for those in her community.

“If I don’t find an opportunity for my own personal betterment, for my academic or professional betterment or for any kind of social mobility, I make one for myself,” Padilla-Rodriguez says.