KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 28, 2023 – University of Rhode Island undergraduate Jasmin Valdivieso Sanches has been awarded an Obama-Chesky Scholarship for Public Service by the Obama Foundation, one of 100 college students from 33 states and territories and 75 colleges and universities to earn the honor.
“When I received the email that I was selected for the scholarship, it took me a while to grasp that I had won such a huge opportunity,” said Valdivieso Sanches, a double major in political science and gender and women’s studies at URI. “I’m excited for this. It will definitely help lessen the financial stress that is college and help me create a pool of experience to extract from as I continue to explore possible immigration reform.”
A resident of Las Vegas, Valdivieso Sanches is the second URI student to be named a Voyager Scholar in the program’s first two years. Launched last year by former President Barack and Michelle Obama and Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, the scholarship supports college students entering their junior year of college who are interested in careers in public service.
The program provides up to $25,000 per year in financial aid for the students’ junior and senior years and a $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing to create a travel-work experience the summer before their senior year. Recipients also take part in an annual fall summit and have access to mentors and leaders.
A daughter of Indigenous Mexican immigrants, Valdivieso Sanches looks forward to using the Voyager Scholarship to explore immigration policies and how they affect the lives of immigrants, especially their ability to integrate into society and gain citizenship.
“Viable immigration reform is imperative in the United States,” said Valdivieso Sanches, a rising junior. “I want to study the social impact of selected countries’ immigration policies on the immigrants living there. I would use that comparison to determine how future immigration reforms in the U.S. would impact immigrants.”
Next summer, she plans to travel to three countries with different immigration policies—England, Spain and Finland—and volunteer at nonprofit organizations that work with immigrants. She wants to hear the immigrants’ stories about their experiences in their host countries, including issues around discrimination, employment and citizenship.
“Spain is considered to have one of the more welcoming immigration policies in Europe and England has one of the stricter policies,” she said. “I want to look at three different kinds of immigration reforms to compare and contrast and see what the effects are on immigrants.”
At URI, Valdivieso Sanches has carried a 3.7 grade-point average while working two part-time jobs on campus and serving in the Rhode Island National Guard (1st Battalion, Bravo Battery, 103rd Field Artillery Regiment) to help pay for school. She has especially excelled as a researcher.
In a political science class with lecturer Daniel Carrigg, her research paper on the impact of religion on Mexican American voting behavior in the 2016 and 2020 elections was a standout, drawing on insights from her experience living, working and volunteering in Nevada, a literature review and a political science theory that was not taught in class. “She really threw herself into the project,” said Carrigg. The project helped her earn the department’s David Warren Scholars with High Distinction Award.
“Jasmin is a diligent and hard-working student,” he added. “She has very keen natural insight—an inductive ability to take a lot of her experiences and what she has read and extrapolate up to general principles—that is somewhat of an art when it comes to theorizing and selecting theories to test.”
Valdivieso Sanches came to URI in spring 2022 after taking nearly three years off from college because of pancreatitis–caused by trauma from two serious car accidents her senior year of high school–along with the pandemic and her National Guard service.
Older than her classmates and dealing with the financial burden of college, she says her first semesters at URI were painful. Her age made her feel insecure. “I definitely did not have the excitement that I feel most college students have,” she said. “With everything that had happened, I was just ready to get the ball rolling, get my degree and get out.”
The smaller size of the URI campus helped her focus on the things she wanted to commit her time to and find the people who could help her, such as the URI Counseling Center. “I just found it easier to find my support system,” she said. “That was something that I really needed.”
At URI, she has also used her voice to champion causes for underrepresented groups, including working with other native Spanish-speaking students to advocate for the availability of campus tours in Spanish for new students and their parents. She also recently became a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Ambassador in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The desire to advocate for underrepresented groups is new to her. Growing up in Las Vegas, Spanish was spoken seemingly everywhere and the Mexican American cultural presence was deeply rooted. On the East Coast, she found the opposite. It shocked her.
“I didn’t grow up understanding that I was a minority in the United States. Even the people that weren’t Mexican in Las Vegas understood our culture really well because our presence was everywhere,” she said. “Because I had that and realized I lost it in Rhode Island made me want to be a lot more vocal about what should be obvious in terms of resources, information and support.”
With the help of the Voyager Scholarship, Valdivieso Sanches hopes to eventually become a policy researcher, which she calls a form of activism. In that role, she would be the expert with the information and resources needed to bring on real change, she said.
“I grew up wanting to be a judge or a lawyer for immigration reform,” she said. “But I realized that my ambition doesn’t stop with trying to help people based on the current laws and policies. I want to be at the table so I can try to fix things from the inside out.”
URI students interested in exploring nationally competitive awards are encouraged to consult with the URI Office of National Fellowships & Academic Opportunities.