Becoming an Inspirational Leader
“My mom. She enjoys challenging herself, which is super impressive,” Perez said. “She came here by herself with three kids—me and my siblings—from Puerto Rico, where I was born. She was born in the Dominican Republic. She knew very little English. But now, she works as a front-desk receptionist and relies heavily on communication. She’s not afraid. She jumps right into it. And that really inspired me to do the same.”
For Perez, a first-generation college student from Reading, Pa., who prefers to go by “Jay,” “jumping into it” meant beginning her college search all on her own. She admittedly felt at a disadvantage because many of her classmates were drawing upon college-search knowledge from their parents.
“My parents didn’t know what FAFSA was, or what college would be best for me. They didn’t go to college,” Perez said. “So, being a first-gen student actually begins during your search.”
“Jumping into it” also meant taking a chance on transferring to Ursinus College from another institution in 2017, which was a bit serendipitous. “Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “Even my advisor, Rebecca Jaroff, was running around with me making sure I had all of my books and knew where I was going. Everyone went the extra mile.”
It was the best possible decision for Perez, who found a niche at Ursinus. She became a Bonner leader, a UCARE fellow, a Watson Fellowship nominee, and received one of the college’s Annual Fund scholarships, the Inspirational Women’s Scholarship.
“Before all of that, I sort of felt like I wasn’t really good enough to be in college,” she said. “I definitely had a bit of imposter syndrome situation going on; I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be in these spaces.”
Those are feelings she traces back to high school, where she says may students from underrepresented communities were made to feel unwelcome, one reason she’s committed to education access and wants to be a college professor.
“I wanted that experience to be my last,” she said of the prejudices she felt in high school. “Once I got here—and got into the Bonner program—that gave me such a huge boost of confidence. I want other students in high schools and middle schools to feel like they had a have a right to be there. They have a right for the playing field to be equal. I could be a voice for those people.”
Perez is a natural leader and mentor. She’s determined to not let others fall through the cracks, and she wants to help provide opportunities to students in the way that she was provided an opportunity at Ursinus.
She’s lived up the name of that scholarship—and the standard set by another inspirational woman: her mother, Maria Soto.
“She’s unafraid,” Perez said. “And me … I feel like I’ve become a little bit more tenacious. I guess that’s a good way to put it. I couldn’t just sit there and let anything pass by me. I had to make the most of every opportunity. And, I always wanted to be the kind of person that a someone could just come up to and talk to. If I saw another classmate struggling, I would not hesitate to help them or do a little bit more of a project.”
“I really do want to pay it forward.”
What brings you joy?
“Reading. When I came to the U.S., I didn’t know English and I had to learn. And the English I was hearing was different than what I knew. Reading was helpful then, and now I just read a lot because I enjoy it.”
What is most unique about your story?
“I think many people don’t really realize how much of their experience is shaped by others. A lot of what I experienced and who I experienced it with helped me down this path. I’ve had wonderful teachers who saw a lot of potential in me that I didn’t really see myself at all. Of course, I did a lot of my own volition, but it was also the people I’ve met.”
What does it mean to be a “Bear for Life?”
I’ve learned lessons from professors that I’m always going to carry with me when I go into grad school, or when I become a college professor myself. I’m going to apply all of those lessons into my own teaching, and that’s what will make me a Bear for Life.