Class of 2012: A Leader Dedicates Herself to Educating Latino Students

May 2, 2012 — Alexa Proffitt's parents instilled in her the importance of serving one's community, she said, and attending the University of Virginia has strengthened her dedication. It also led to finding her mission: helping improve education and academic success for Latino and other minority youth.

Proffitt pursued a double major in studies in women and gender and foreign affairs. After her graduation May 20 from the College of Arts & Sciences, she will head to San Antonio this summer to begin training for a two-year stint with Teach for America.

A resident of Richmond, Proffitt lived in Tempe, Ariz. for her first nine years. Her father, who is white, works in the Head Start program, and her mother, whom she described as "a feminist Mexican woman," works for the Social Security Administration.

"They had a great impact on what I believe in and what I think is important," said Proffitt, who has worked for the last two years in the office of the Studies in Women and Gender program.

Her interest in politics began early; as a child, she used to watch "Meet the Press," she said. At U.Va., she took a two-semester course on "History of American Women" that not only introduced her to the SWAG program, as it is commonly known, but also widened her perspective, she said.

"The course incorporated history, politics and women's studies. ... So many things were pertinent to the world, I felt I could use it in my life, in everything," Proffitt said.

As an example, she cited "Gender in Comparative Perspectives" as being "foundational in understanding gender and politics on a broader scale." Denise Walsh, associate professor of politics and SWAG, taught the course and was Proffitt's thesis adviser. She said Proffitt was a thoughtful and attentive participant. "Her comments in class often made linkages across the readings, signaling an active interest and commitment to the material."

Proffitt said from courses like those she took with Walsh, she learned how to transfer her new knowledge about activism from American women's history to Latino and minority rights.

"Alexa leads others through her actions," said Laura Mellusi, the SWAG program's office manager. "She listens with compassion and speaks with understanding. Her involvement at U.Va. extends well beyond the classroom, for she is a mentor, a leader and a friend."

Proffitt helped establish the Latino Student Alliance, which brings together several groups, and chaired the alliance this year. The Latino Student Alliance functions as an umbrella organization for the Latino/Hispanic community at U.Va. (Although "Latino" and "Hispanic" are often used interchangeably, some people prefer one more than the other.)

The group's goals reflect Proffitt's activities as an undergraduate: "To facilitate communication and exchange of ideas among the various organizations, to coordinate scheduling of events and activities and to collaborate on worthy projects, such as Hispanic Heritage Month and Latino Awareness Week," as its website says.

Proffitt also worked to build bridges between student organizations. She was the Latino Student Alliance's representative to the Minority Rights Coalition. She helped bring in guest speaker Amanda Fernandez, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Teach for America, as part of the coalition's Diversity in Education Series.

She also was an intern for the University Women's Center Men's Leadership Program, helping support the program through grant-writing and raising awareness.

Proffitt helped fellow Latino/Hispanic students on the personal level by becoming a peer mentor for the Office of the Dean of Students Peer Mentoring Program.

Luis Ortiz, one of the first-year students she guided, said Proffitt has been an inspiring role model. "We always joke that she's the mom, partly because she's a fourth-year about to leave, but mostly because she always knows what's going on, what to do and how to do it perfectly," he said.

"She was constantly busy planning, attending meetings or helping members in her organizations," Ortiz said. "That intense dedication serves as motivation for us, the younger students, to assume roles of leadership and empower the next generation of young leaders."

Proffitt sees a great need for more Latinos to get involved in education programs, such as Teach for America, she said. "Only 9 percent of the program's teachers are Latino, whereas 65 percent of the students they teach are Latino and other minorities."

After teaching, she plans to go to graduate school and continue gender studies. The rate of Latinos earning Ph.D.s has been stagnant since 1980, Proffitt said, and she'd like to help to increase the numbers.

"My experiences at U.Va. have influenced what I want to do, in that I am more passionate now than I have ever been about Latino and minority access to quality and higher education. ... There should be so many more high-achieving minority students at universities like U.Va. across the country," she said.

— by Anne Bromley