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A soon-to-be graduate of Ferrum College is overcoming barriers of language and culture to become a singular contributor to her school, and potentially to her adopted nation.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Norma Velez, 23, of Collinsville will be graduating from Ferrum College on Saturday with a major in Spanish and minors in history and international studies. Velez, originally from Honduras, sees herself eventually moving into the role of a human rights advocate.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
FERRUM — Smiles seem right at home wreathed across Norma Velez's expressive face, but it is clear she's no Pollyanna.
Velez, 23, speaks with strong feeling about the plight of undocumented Central Americans who become victims of crime and corruption while traveling illegally through Mexico to try to reach the United States.
"It is a huge problem," said Velez, a native of Honduras who focused a research project at Ferrum College on related human rights violations in Mexico.
On Saturday, Velez and nearly 230 other students will graduate from Ferrum during the four-year private college's centennial year.
Velez has not lived on the small school's picturesque campus in Franklin County. (She has commuted from Collinsville in a 1993 Toyota Corolla with more than 250,000 miles on its odometer.) English is her second language.
But neither has kept Velez from leaving her mark at the college, where she has majored in Spanish, with minors in history and international studies. Like her parents, Velez believes in the power of education.
"Norma is an exemplary student," said Patricia Suppes, an assistant professor of Spanish. "She's a natural leader. It's been great to work with her."
Velez attended Bassett High School and Patrick Henry Community College before starting classes at Ferrum in the fall of 2011. Suppes said Velez quickly became a popular and respected presence on campus, where about 1,500 students are enrolled.
"Norma is incredibly likable. She is friendly and outgoing. She's just very enthusiastic and seems very excited about life in general," Suppes said.
Velez has frequented the school's Academic Resources Center, where Suppes said Velez could be found studying or tutoring students struggling to learn Spanish.
In November 2004, Velez was 15 years old when she, her two brothers and their mother, Berta Vijil, left San Juan Pueblo in Honduras and moved, as legal immigrants, to Collinsville. They joined Santos Velez, Vijil's husband and the children's father, who had been in the U.S. off and on for about four years. The couple has since divorced and Norma lives with her mother.
Velez said her parents, both college educated, always emphasized the importance of learning.
"When I was in high school I knew I was going to college," she said. "It wasn't a yes or no question."
She said that emphasis was a key reason the family moved to the United States. Her brother Diego, who is 22, is graduating from Radford University. Her brother Kevin, 18, is graduating from Bassett High School.
The transition from San Juan Pueblo to Collinsville was not without strain.
"The first year was especially hard," Velez said. "I was missing everything, especially my friends."
She had learned some English while growing up in Honduras, but being totally immersed in the language all at once was daunting, she said. The language barrier hamstrung her natural inclination toward extroversion.
"I'm always talkative and I'm always everywhere, all the time," Velez said, smiling.
Occasionally, she sensed the sort of subtle animosity born of bigotry or xenophobia.
"You could feel it, but not directly, I'd say," Velez said.
Velez said she and her family are "mestizos," people of mixed ancestry whose forebears likely included Native Americans, Europeans and descendants of African slaves.
After high school, Velez enrolled at Patrick Henry Community College, where she focused on developmental courses to improve her English. Yet she said she still ached for what she ultimately found at Ferrum College.
"I like community and I like to feel safe and Ferrum gave me that," she said.
While still at PHCC, Velez said, she received invaluable guidance from Sammy Redd, coordinator of college access for the New College Institute in Martinsville. She said Redd helped her in numerous ways, ranging from showing her how to complete financial aid forms to introducing her to Ferrum College.
Redd recently said he was struck by Velez's determination and perseverance, and how she transitioned quickly from a teen who spoke little English to a highly motivated adult college student.
"It's really nothing short of remarkable," Redd said. "I've actually used her story as an example for other students. I tell them, 'If you want to succeed, there is absolutely nothing that presents a permanent barrier.'"
Redd has worked also with Diego Velez, and said the brother and sister are among his favorite success stories.
"I'll never forget them," he said.
At Ferrum, Velez joined the college's tennis team. She became Spanish Club president. When a group of Honduran students visited, she helped them connect with Ferrum students. And she organized a children's day for Latino kids in Collinsville and recruited Ferrum students to help.
"Norma has been a cultural ambassador at Ferrum," Suppes said.
In September, Velez became a U.S. citizen.
Sandra Via, a professor of political science at Ferrum, said Velez recently attended a lecture at Virginia Tech by Cynthia Weber, a noted professor of international relations at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, even though Velez was not enrolled in a related class and had no incentive to attend other than a thirst for knowledge. Weber's lecture was titled, "Who is the Border? A Multi-Media Engagement with Transnationality, Citizenship and Identity."
As Velez's time at Ferrum College draws to a close she expresses optimism about her future. She said she will likely work for a year or more to earn money to help pay for graduate school. She said she might work someday as a human rights advocate.
In separate interviews, Velez and Redd each said they realize that immigration reform is a complex and politically thorny issue. But Redd said immigrants like Norma and Diego Velez, who are "willing to do whatever is necessary to be successful," offer a wealth of benefits to the nation they have embraced.
"I think they're an example of how immigrants to our country can really be tremendous contributors," Redd said.
Velez said Jose Armando Vigil, her maternal grandfather, created his own opportunities in Honduras: He started a shoe store and then used the income to buy coffee fields. The United States remains a land of opportunities available for the taking, she said in an email.
"Education is the key to a better future and we need to take it for us, our families and [for those] who don't have the opportunities," Velez said.
Find more details about Ferrum College's commencement at roanoke.com/collegegraduations2013.
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