Tuesday, December 12, 2023

As a first-generation Latina student, Jessica Soria says she arrived at the University of Iowa unsure of exactly what she wanted to major in, but with an impulse to help people in her professional life.

That’s why Soria, an Education Studies and Human Relations (ESHR) major, was pleasantly surprised to be selected to deliver the commencement address to her fellow fall 2023 graduates at the UI College of Education Undergraduate Commencement and Teacher Education Program Recognition Ceremony. The event was held  Thursday, December 14, at 4 p.m. in Hancher Auditorium.

Soria, who hails from Storm Lake, Iowa, came to the University of Iowa as an open major interested in providing therapy and mental health services to students. While exploring majors, her advisor recommended she connect with Professor Kathy Schuh, the ESHR program director.

Soria says she was impressed with the course offerings and that the major would allow her to explore her passions without going down the more common route of psychology.

“This major specifically focuses on giving students the ability to be in a helping profession without having to be in a typical K-12 classroom setting,” she says. “I think that was one of the biggest highlights of what drew me to the program because it's exactly what I wanted, and there is no other major that offers something like that.”

In addition to completing her ESHR major, Soria will graduate with a certificate in Resilience and Trauma-Informed Perspectives and highest division honors.

Soria has already been working to make a positive impact on community mental health. She has been involved with Active Minds, a student led organization that works to destigmatize mental illness and increase students’ awareness of mental health issues. Soria also volunteers at the Open Heartland, a non-profit that supports families in Iowa City who immigrated from Mexico and Central America.

“We do a lot of food distribution, hygiene, and clothing distribution. They provide mobile clinics to offer general medicine and dermatology services and it's free. So, it's nice to help the Latinx community just because I'm a Latina myself, and I don't get to hear a lot of people speak Spanish here because it's a predominantly white institution. So being in that community brings me back to my roots in a sense,” she says.

Soria has also worked with the CommUnity Crisis Line.

“I really enjoyed that because I want to become a mental health counselor, and I got a lot of training in how to use open ended questions, empathy statements,” Soria says. “Just listening to people in crisis was a privilege and it was an honor because I am a stranger to them and they still were very courageous to call the crisis chat, ask for help, and be vulnerable with me.”

Soria says she wants to encourage her peers to take care of themselves while making the most of their experience.

“I would like everyone to just take it one day at a time. Take care of themselves and take advantage of opportunities in the moment,” Soria says. “Life gets stressful, but it's important to make the best out of it and take advantage of the many opportunities that life brings your way, whether it's while you're still in school or your workplace.”

Soria says she was happily surprised to learn she had been nominated to deliver the speech by Nancy Langguth and Katherine Mossman.

“I didn't expect to be nominated, but I am very grateful for the opportunity, as a first-generation college student,” Soria says. “I am Latina and it’s nice to be seen and recognized for my hard work and good effort, especially by the professors that I was inspired by during my time here. It’s heartwarming to have them acknowledge my hard work and allow me to represent my culture and my name.”

Soria says she was especially influenced by Schuh, Langguth, Mossman, and Mallory Becraft.

Following graduation, Soria plans to attend a graduate program in mental health counseling to become a mental health counselor.

Soria is leaving with an appreciation for the ESHR major, especially the ability to connect with doctoral and graduate students through the ESHR Mentoring Program.

“Throughout my undergraduate studies, both my present mentor, Luz Alcala, and my prior mentor, Michala Cox, provided me with insightful advice,” she says. “They calmed my worries, answered my questions, and supported me whenever I needed it, which helped me be more equipped to face challenges in the future. Taking time out of our busy schedules to grab a coffee or a treat and catch up was enough to brighten my day.”