Michelle Obama. Hillary Clinton. Liana Guerra. A UF graduate joins esteemed company, thanks to a scholarship that brings young voices into civic life.
Dressed in her plaid school uniform, 9-year-old Liana Guerra held up a sign that rivaled her in size. She stood up straight alongside her mother, younger brother and hundreds of others at the teachers’ protest in Miami, using her small voice to fight for big issues.
A dozen years and several protests later, Guerra’s experiences sparked an interest in civic engagement that continued to grow as she did. Eventually, that passion saw her join the ranks of former first ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in Huffington Post’s 2016 list of “18 Amazing Women Fighting for Latinas Every Day.”
Guerra, who graduated in 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science, credits her success to the positive mentors she’s surrounded herself with from her earliest days.
Chief among those is her mother, Alicia. “My mom taught me to stand up for what’s right when there’s something wrong in the community, even if it did not influence me directly,” said Guerra, now deputy chief of staff for Rep. Darren Soto in Washington, D.C.
Guerra also credits the support she received at UF. She said that shortly after arriving in Gainesville from Miami, she quickly met people who guided her. One of those mentors, Dr. Philip Williams, taught her first-year Latin American and Caribbean migration class.
“I remember her as a shy freshman in that course,” said Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies. “Seeing her blossom into a leader on campus and in the state of Florida was amazing.”
In her fourth semester, Guerra received the Askew Scholarship through the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. The scholarship, named in honor of former Florida Governor Reubin Askew, is awarded to student leaders committed to community service and civic engagement.
Students don’t realize the magnitude of their voice and the power that they have to pressure their legislatures to change the law.
— Liana Guerra —
Sheila Dickison, an associate director of the Bob Graham Center, described Guerra as a remarkable student who was goal-oriented and organized.
“Liana was in the first (scholarship) class, and she really epitomized the incredible quality of students we have in the program,” Dickison said.
The program provides recipients with leadership training, a mentor to help them prepare for a life of civic involvement, and $3,000 to do research in the field of their choice. Guerra’s work at the Bob Graham Center connected her with an internship in Tallahassee working for then- State Sen. Darren Soto.
“This was the first time for me when I felt like this is where I belong and what I want to do,” Guerra said.
Knowing she wanted to use the Askew funding to make a difference in her community, Guerra set her sights on an immigration issue she had learned about through volunteering at La Casita, now UF’s Hispanic and Latino Affairs.
At the time, undocumented immigrants who grew up and attended school in Florida – the so-called Dreamers – were paying out-of-state tuition rates, quadrupling the cost of getting a degree. When Guerra learned of a bill that would allow them to pay in-state tuition at state universities, she founded Gators for Tuition Equity. The group, made up of various student organizations, organized awareness events, conducted petition drives, pressured legislatures and lobbied in Tallahassee. The legislation passed in 2014, giving in-state tuition to undocumented students who grew up in Florida.
“Students don’t realize the magnitude of their voice and the power that they have to pressure their legislators to change the law,” Guerra said.
Looking back on her experiences at UF, she said she is grateful for the guidance she received. Looking forward, she hopes to provide the same type of guidance to Hispanic students at UF, a goal that is more attainable now that she is on the Board of Hispanic Alumni.
“My goal is to fund a scholarship for Hispanic students at UF to intern in Washington, D.C.,” Guerra said. “For me, that funding from the Askew scholarship was pivotal to my success.”