Itzel Chávez Gómez
28, College and Career Coordinator at Adelante Mujeres
2022 Prize Winner
As the first person in her family to graduate with a four-year college degree, Itzel Chávez Gómez knows firsthand the challenges college freshmen face. Choosing a major, for example. When Chávez Gómez, now 28, was deciding what to study at the University of Oregon, she relied on one source: the CBS show CSI: Miami.
Inspired by the character Eric Delko, Chávez Gómez was poised for a career as an undercover agent—double-majoring in political science and Russian because the fictitious Delko’s father was Russian.
“It’s hard to understand what college really is, especially when you don’t have family who has done it before,” Chávez Gómez says.
Chávez Gómez is now the college and career coordinator at the Forest Grove-based nonprofit Adelante Mujeres (“Women Rise Up”). She mentors more than 30 Latina seniors at seven high schools in Washington County, helping them choose a college, fill out applications, and apply for financial aid. She shares her CSI: Miami story with students all the time: “I feel like a mom, telling them, ‘Don’t make the mistakes that I made.’”
In Eugene, she took ethnic studies classes that “opened up my whole world.” She learned about Latino history and, for the first time, started to embrace her own Mexican heritage. (She also learned about the racism embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system, which soured her on the idea of working for law enforcement.)
Her work at Adelante Mujeres continues this celebration of her culture. “I don’t want other Latina students to spend 21 years of their lives being ashamed of who they are,” she says.
Growing up in Beaverton as one of four children of a then-undocumented single mother, the only Latina friends she had were her cousins. She dreaded roll call on the first day of school, worried the teacher would botch the pronunciation of her name. The internalized oppression ran so deep that Chávez Gómez “just wanted to be white.”
Chávez Gómez pioneered Adelante Mujeres’ “Chicas in College” program, which supports 70 Latinas across nine colleges in Oregon, connecting them with campus resources and each other. She also developed the first-ever Chicas Emergency Grant that covers college-related expenses such as tuition, books, housing, meals and transportation.
Adelante Mujeres’ youth development advocate and project developer, Carmen Walsh, says Chávez Gómez works extra hard to make sure students “know someone has their back”: She has thrown summer barbecues and stayed up until 4 am writing recommendation letters for students who have asked at the last minute.