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Fight on all Fronts: USF Gates Millennium Scholar Puts on the Gloves for Immigrant Rights

Marisela Esparza

It’s graduation season, and a new class of USF students will soon launch careers in law, science, nonprofits, business, and more. Almost all of them want to change the world; some already have.

This month, we’re celebrating the pioneers who are leading and succeeding with stories about USF students, alumni, and faculty committed to making a difference. 

Like most USF students, Marisela Esparza’s service-learning experience started by volunteering for a cause. Unlike most, it ended with her helping to organize a strike to win higher wages for thousands of San Francisco hotel workers. What began as a class requirement became a calling.

We know we’ve only scratched the surface. Share Marisela's story, then tell us how you and your fellow Dons are leading and succeeding on social media. Tag it #USFCA, and we might feature you. 

Read more stories about USFers leading and succeeding.

Esparza ’14 spent her sophomore year fighting for hotel workers as a volunteer organizer for Unite HERE!

Finding her voice

“My sophomore year was when I found my voice,” says Esparza, an International Studies major. Once shy, she was inspired by the struggles of the Hilton San Francisco chambermaids, bellboys, and kitchen cooks she met during a service-learning class.

“I had to go up against this huge corporation. I got angry,” says Esparza, who volunteered for seven months and worked alongside picketers and telephoned hundreds of convention goers to urge them to hold their events elsewhere. “It was something I felt was very important, and that I couldn’t leave just because the semester ended.”

New sense of purpose

She devoted more than 90 hours to the campaign, three times what was required to fulfill her service-learning requirement. Hilton’s workers ended up with a multi-year contract and pay raises, and Esparza walked away with a new sense of purpose: fighting for immigrant rights. 

A Mexican American, the seeds of Esparza’s fighting spirit were planted when her mother, who’s undocumented, was deported in 2006. The helplessness Esparza and her family felt at the time left its mark.

She spent her junior year researching immigration policy for legislators in Sacramento and campaigning for protections for LGBT immigrants in Washington D.C.

Multiple awards for service

Her senior year, Esparza earned a fellowship from California Campus Compact (a statewide coalition of universities that supports student civic and community engagement) to tutor Spanish speakers in English for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco (ECS), which provides housing, job training, and senior services for homeless and low-income residents.

It’s no wonder Esparza recently won the USF Intercultural Center’s El Pueblo Unido award for service and activism and the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good’s public service award.

“That’s the kind of person Marisela is. She won’t stop until she finds a solution,” says Mallory Hasick, ECS volunteer coordinator.

USF engrained in me

All the while, Esparza, a Gates Millennium Scholar (scholarship provides to 1,000 talented U.S. students a year to pay for their undergraduate and graduate education), maintained a full class load, a 3.2 GPA, and worked two part-time jobs — including one coordinating 80 USF service-learning students, as they worked at Bay Area nonprofits.

At USF, she learned by doing and that helped her find her passion, Esparza says. “USF’s focus on connecting students with the community around them and urging them to act to create change has been engrained in me. I have had so many opportunities, both educational and experiential, that I would not have had attended school anywhere else,” Esparza says. “I plan to continue applying what I’ve learned in whatever comes next for me. Hopefully, I can continue helping the immigrants in the areas of detention, deportation, and employee rights.”

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews