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When 22-year-old Alicia Ramirez receives her bachelor’s degree on May 11, she will make two countries proud.

The daughter of an American mother and a Mexican father, Ramirez is used to navigating the waters of diversity and multiculturality, and the difficulties that sometimes come with it.

The youngest of six siblings, Ramirez was still a child when her parents separated and her father took on the responsibility of raising her and one of her brothers in East Tennessee.

“He’s worked tirelessly his whole life as an employee of a factory and packing plant to support me and my brother and to make sure we had the opportunities he never had,” she said.

She had always been aware of her father’s history; he arrived in the United States in the 1980s as an undocumented immigrant. It wasn’t until Ramirez took a race and ethnicity class with Michelle Christian and a special topics course on immigration with Meghan Conley—both professors in UT’s Department of Sociology—that her dad finally shared his story with her in full detail.

“He took a long, treacherous journey from Zimapán—a small community about three hours north of Mexico City—to the United States in search of a better life,” she said.

And he found it: in 2012, he became an American citizen.

Her experience with the courses sparked her interest in sociology and psychology, the two subjects she’s majored in at UT. And when she walks across the stage during spring commencement, closely cheered on by her dad—who bought his first suit for the occasion—she will become the first member of her family to have ever attended and graduated from college.

“My dad only made it to fifth grade, and my mom to seventh,” she said.

Having seen firsthand the complications of navigating the US immigration system, Ramirez currently dedicates her spare time to advocating for those who need help integrating into American communities.

“I volunteer as a coordinator and translator for Centro Hispano and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. I am there to show compassion, lend them my voice. It is a really a labor of love to help people that, like my dad, come here looking for a safer place for themselves and their children,” she says. “Building bridges is very important to me.”

As for the future, Ramirez will take a year off to gain more experience and reflect about her next steps.

“I might come back to school to become an immigration lawyer, or maybe I will go into the academy. I would love to see an immigration concentration here at UT, and I would be proud to help build a program like that,” she said.

CONTACT:

Andrea Schneibel (andrea.schneibel@utk.edu, 865-974-3993)