A Journey in Advocacy: From Newcomer to Advocate of the Year

April 30, 2019

By Nora Lisa Cavazos

I started my advocacy journey about four years ago. I was in my first professional job a little more than a year and was encouraged by my former boss, Rose Mary Valencia, to partake in NAFSA's annual Advocacy Day. Little did I know that this would turn into much more than I bargained for. Four years and four Advocacy Days later, and here am I still doing the exact thing that I love, and now I have the honor of becoming NAFSA's 2019 Advocate of the Year.

Since then, I've learned that advocacy is a collective ongoing effort.  If I said I did this alone, I'd be lying. It requires numerous people, tools, and planning. It requires the people involved to be mentally, physically, and emotionally able. And mostly, it requires individuals like you and me.

Living in Texas is not the easiest state to advocate for international education. Multiple visits to both Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz's offices, and my Congressional representative's office later, I've learned that this is part of the journey but that's why we keep doing it, because if it was easy, then we wouldn't be here. I have also learned that advocacy does not start or end in Washington, D.C. It is continuous as long as you make it so. 

Recently, my colleague Shannon Bedo of Houston Baptist University and I held a regional Advocacy Day, where we met with staffers at the local Texas offices of Senator Cornyn (R-TX), Senator Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Olsen (R-TX-22). While doing these visits, we learned that not all Representatives' offices are equal. We learned that had Shannon and I not visited our regional Houston offices as international educators, they would have never heard about international students and scholars and the issues they're facing today. We were told by Senator John Cornyn's Houston office that we were the first individuals from higher education that had come to talk to their offices about international students and scholars, ever.

With that said, don't for a minute think that what you're doing doesn't matter because you may be the first of your kind to hand them information that they've never heard before. We had no idea that we would be the source of information for these offices for international education. And from that, one of my biggest takeaways from this experience has been learning that we are the sole educators to our Congressional representatives when it comes to international students, scholars, and employees. You may have heard that here before but let me tell you there is no greater truth than that.

I would like to thank NAFSA, including Katie O'Connell and Kasey Penfield on the public policy team, because without their help, much of this would not be possible. Thank you to my mom, dad, Melissa, and Linda for always reminding me that the sky is the limit. Thank you to my closest friends and professional colleagues for putting up with my constant immigration discussions but also encouraging me to explore them further.

As Michelle Obama wrote, "Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own."”" So let us make our story what we want it to be, and let us start today. What you do on Capitol Hill matters, and remember, we are the only ones who do what we do. So go out there to advocate with an open mind but with heart like no other. Go out there with determination, knowing that you can literally bring change to immigration reform. Don't be afraid to raise your voice for the things and people you believe in. Be proud of what you're doing and give it your all.

Nora Lisa Cavazos is the Senior Legal Assistant, Department of Legal Affairs in the Office of International Affairs at The University of Texas Medical Branch, and the 2019 NAFSA Advocate of the Year.