Three iSchool Students Recognized for Commitment to Serving Spanish-Speaking Communities
REFORMA Scholarships Affirm Librarianship Career Goals
Luisa Leija, Cynthia Cortes and Renee Torres, three San José State University School of Information graduate students, were recently awarded scholarships by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish speakers, recognizing their contributions to the field and their commitment to the organization’s mission.
Established in 1971, REFORMA is an affiliate of the American Library Association that actively recruits bilingual and bicultural library professionals and support staff, works toward the development of library services and programs that meet the needs of the Latino community, and promotes public awareness of libraries and librarianship among Latinos.
One of REFORMA’s most noteworthy activities is the annual scholarship drive. Through local REFORMA chapter scholarship funds, the association awards a number of scholarships to library school students that express interest in working with Latinos and the education of the U.S. Latino population, including the Rose Treviño Memorial Scholarship, for those pursuing a degree in children’s or young adult librarianship.
For Leija, who received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Writing from the California College of Arts, the Rose Treviño Scholarship was a perfect match, and her embodiment of its legacy is evident.
Commenting on her history of community involvement, Leija said, “For over 16 years, I’ve dedicated myself to working with young people and their families in schools, community centers, and within the non-profit sector, and to being an advocate, a mentor, and an educator, especially for immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities.”
But moving with her family for her husband’s work and staying home with their son had made finding work as a non-profit administrator challenging for Leija in cities where nobody knew her name. Once she arrived in Long Beach, Calif., she decided to take her sister’s advice and apply for a part-time position as a library assistant with Long Beach Public Library—and landed the job.
“I take my position as one of the only Spanish speakers in the building very seriously. For me, it’s an honor to serve my community members, to give them my best effort, and help them find resources available for them to enjoy,” she said. “I want people to feel respected, to feel safe, supported, and honored for who they are, where they come from, and what they have to offer the world. I extend that desire not only to Spanish-speaking communities but to all people, all walks of life, all identities, intersections, and experiences.”
After six months, Leija said she was pretty sure that it was more than just a part-time job. “I fell in love with the work! It was balanced and dynamic in so many ways,” she said. “I enjoy sparking joy through stories.”
Leija said she decided to apply for the scholarship because her fellow “REFORMISTA” Cynthia Bautista, an amazing senior librarian at Long Beach Public Library, encouraged her to apply, and she realized that being able to afford going back to school without the help of scholarships would be difficult, if not impossible.
Learning she had been awarded the scholarship was an emotional moment for Leija. “When Delores Carlito, REFORMA Scholarship chair, called me on the phone with the good news, I couldn’t hold back the tears! I was in the middle of moving to a new home with my family, so exhausted and overwhelmed, but then Ms. Carlito called, and it felt like a grand affirmation that I was indeed on the right path,” she said.
Receiving the Rose Treviño Scholarship, said Leija, was “an incredible honor, especially since it memorializes a librarian whose passion, dedication, and advocacy for children and their families was demonstrated through her career. She is exactly the kind of librarian I aspire to be.”
Cortes, who received her BA from Rutgers in Latino and Caribbean Studies, recently completed a fellowship with Brooklyn Public Library and aims to work with public libraries after graduation. Her collaborative efforts, extraordinary leadership and commitment to service were among the attributes that helped win her the REFORMA scholarship.
“During my 10-month fellowship at the Brooklyn Public Library, I had the pleasure of working with incredibly supportive and compassionate library staff on programs for immigrant patrons,” she said. “We facilitated Know Your Rights workshops and created a legal resource guide for immigrants. My work there equipped me to be an even better advocate for immigrant communities and affirmed my desire to become a librarian.”
Having recently relocated to Los Angeles to work more closely with Spanish-speaking communities, Cortes said as a future librarian, she hopes to be a resource for immigrant communities and intends to use the REFORMA scholarship funds to develop more professional skills, and help pay for her Master of Library and Information Science courses.
After graduation, Cortes’ plans include partnering with city agencies to create programs that connect social services with Spanish-speaking patrons who experience homelessness, poverty, and discrimination, working with Latino youth to help them apply to college, and creating a mentorship program for LatinX youth.
“When I found out I’d received the scholarship, I was very excited and grateful. As an immigrant and first-generation college student, there are many obstacles I encounter, but this scholarship enables me to pursue my MLIS,” she said. “The most exciting aspect of this scholarship is working with a mentor and being an active member of REFORMA, where I hope to be an additional asset.”
Torres received her BA from California State University Fullerton and her MA in History from Washington State University. She currently volunteers in high-LatinX-population high schools, where she teaches information literacy and critical evaluation to reduce library anxiety and empower students.
As a student member, Torres is clearly aligned with REFORMA’s mission. “I was motivated to apply for the scholarship because I firmly believe in the values of the organization, which works to promote library and information services to Latino communities and those who speak Spanish,” she explained.
Torres, who said email notifications from the iSchool about scholarship opportunities convinced her to apply, said she found the application process to be straightforward, and encouraged other iSchool students to apply for the several REFORMA scholarships that are awarded through local chapters across California. “I really appreciate that they support and encourage the professional development of Latinx library and information science professionals,” she said.
When she learned that she was one of the scholarship recipients, Torres said she felt “overjoyed,” and that it validated her decision to become a librarian—a career path that had initially drawn skepticism from some of her family and coworkers. It also proved that there are professionals in the field that see her potential.
“Winning this scholarship, along with a few others, has really reaffirmed my decision to return to school and pursue my MLIS degree,” she said. “Moreover, as a woman of color hoping to work in an academic library, it is really affirming and comforting to know that there are other people of color cheering me on and eager to help me find my way in librarianship.”
iSchool Assistant Professor Michele Villagran serves as REFORMA liaison and REFORMA Education Committee chair. She reflected on how proud she is of each of these students. “Luisa Leija, Cynthia Cortes and Renee Torres are doing wonderful things to support their communities, and I’m grateful that REFORMA continues to recognize and support such endeavors to help students achieve their goals and aspirations with Spanish-speaking communities,” she said.
All REFORMA Scholarship recipients were honored at the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. at the REFORMA Awards Ceremony and Fundraiser on June 22, 2019. For more information, please visit the REFORMA website.