One of UF’s newest graduates on overcoming history and stereotypes to be a Gator
The town of Archer is 15 miles west of downtown Gainesville. But when Lyzet Ignacio-Simon was a child there it seemed to her to be a million more to the University of Florida. UF, it appeared to her then, wasn’t meant for girls like her. Daughters of Mexican immigrants. Children of poor indigenous Otomi people who were looked down upon even in their native country.
“I always felt like a double minority, like I had to prove myself twice,” Ignacio-Simon says. “Even though I was born here [in the U.S.], I felt like I had to prove to two countries that a girl with indigenous roots can go to school.”
So prove herself she did. Over and over again.
I’m so grateful. Their money is an investment in something that helps individuals grow. For me, it’s the opportunity to explore what I didn’t know.
— Lyzet Ignacio-Simon, describing MFOS donors’ impact —
At Newberry High she was class president, an athlete, took the toughest classes — all with an eye on UF, her dream school.
“I wasn’t only doing this for me,” the former Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar says. “I was doing it for my parents’ sacrifice. They came to America so I could have a better life. I had to go to UF. It was my goal to do everything possible to get there.”
Now a new UF graduate with a bachelor’s in health education and behavior, Ignacio-Simon (BSHED ’21) reflects on her unlikely path to the university. Her parents were grade school dropouts. Her dad — the oldest son of 11 children — started working odd jobs at 8 years old, as years passed sometimes going alone to Mexico City for months at a time. Her mom — raised in a high mountain village by a grandmother and aunt following the deaths of her parents when she was 12 — left the classroom to help look after her younger siblings. Because both struggle with English, it was up to Ignacio-Simon to figure out UF’s admissions process and apply for scholarships.
“They know what it’s like to come from nothing,” Ignacio-Simon says of her parents. “They pushed me. They knew that for me to do better I had to go school. They didn’t want me to grow up in the same environment that they grew up in.”
It’s with them in mind that Ignacio-Simon wants to use her degree to work with minority communities to improve people’s health. She’ll start working on her master’s in health administration at UF next fall.
“Looking back on my experiences, with my father being an immigrant he doesn’t really know that much about his own health,” she says, explaining that he isn’t always sure why he’s been prescribed certain medicines or what medical condition his symptoms might indicate.
Who better, she insists, than the daughter of immigrants to serve those overlooked communities?