AMES, Iowa -- Christina Gonzalez probably inherited her spirit of adventure from her mother, who left family and friends in Mexico at 18 to seek a better future.
By all accounts, Mrs. Gonzalez found that future. The young woman who spoke no English in 1992 is fluent now, and earned her GED and American citizenship. And her daughter is about to be the first in her family to graduate from college.
Christina Gonzalez will celebrate with her immigrant parents when she graduates from Iowa State University on Saturday, May 6, with a bachelor’s degree in global resource systems and minors in anthropology and political science.
“I really thank my mom for pushing for education and for me to get a college education,” Gonzalez said. “She was only able to attend school to the 6th grade in Mexico, so she really values education.”
To this day, Gonzalez faithfully follows her mom’s rule about missing school: If you’re not feverish or vomiting, you’re going to school. Because plenty of people who want to, can’t.
A cousin's gift
Now, about that spirit of adventure part.
Gonzalez grew up in the Archer Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. She attended Catholic grade school and Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, a private, all-girl Catholic school.
About the time she began researching options for colleges with good theater programs, Gonzalez had a visit from her cousin, Brian Castro. He had just returned from a service-learning program with Makerere University in Uganda, as part of Iowa State’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods.
“I knew he had traveled to Europe and Africa, but I didn’t know details. He told me stories about being abroad and opportunities he’d had to embrace other cultures,” she said.
“He told me, ‘I’ve been helping in an area where kids are suffering from malnutrition. It’s the greatest feeling to help somebody,’ ” she said.
Castro, a global resource systems (globe) major at ISU, showed her photos of the children he had helped and adored. Gonzalez started thinking that maybe she’d rather work on challenges abroad than study theater. Meanwhile, Castro applied to Iowa State on her behalf.
“A few weeks later, I got an acceptance letter, which was great, even though I didn’t know anything about ISU. But I did know somebody there,” she said.
On Gonzalez's first visit to campus, Castro showed her around and introduced her to the globe program and faculty in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. That was all it took. She didn’t look at any other universities. She was sold on Iowa State.
But her mother wasn’t.
“My mom was not in favor of me coming to a university that was out of state,” Gonzalez said. “She worried about me going so far away from family.”
Gonzalez pointed out that her mother had crossed a national border for a better life when she was 18.
“I told her, ‘I’m just going across a state border to get an education.’ That was my secret weapon to get her to agree,” she said.
Gonzalez declared globe as her major and the Middle East as her geographic region of concentration. Eventually, she added anthropology and political science as minors, setting her sights on a career as a foreign service officer. Unlike her cousin — who recently returned from service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso — Gonzalez decided to help people in “a political way, through policymaking.”
Whether she realized it or not, Gonzalez created her own cultural United Nations on campus. Already fluent in Spanish and conversant in French, she studied Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu (“I love learning languages.”). Her first friends on campus were international students from Pakistan, India, Argentina, Morocco, Thailand and Venezuela (“We were a very diverse group.”).
And one of the first clubs she joined was ISU Bhangra, a troupe of mostly Indian students (“plus one from Brazil and me”) who danced the traditional, Punjabi harvest-celebration dance.
“At International Night freshman year, the ISU Bhangra performance blew me away. It’s amazing — the dancers stomp, jump and do so many stunts. It was awesome. I wanted to dance like that.”
But she had to audition. Gonzalez was the only one auditioning who had never danced Bhangra before. Nevertheless, she was selected as a substitute, then appointed co-captain/choreographer. And by junior year, the Mexican-American from Chicago became president of the ISU Bhangra Club.
And if that isn’t multicultural enough, Gonzalez also has the particular honor of being the only non-Pakistani to serve on the cabinet of the Pakistani Student Association. (“I’m proud of that.”)
Soaking it all up
Globe students are required to intern in their chosen geographic region. But because of U.S. State Department rules, Gonzalez couldn’t go to the Middle East. The closest “they could get me was India.”
For five months, she studied in Varanasi (and yes, her mother was “distraught;” and yes, Christina texted her daily).
Located on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India, Varanasi is considered the country’s spiritual capital. It is the Hindu holy city and sacred in Buddhism and Islam, as well. The city was unlike any Gonzalez had experienced. She took advantage of each and every minute there.
She soaked up all of the cultural and religious beliefs, traditions, rituals, values and tidbits she could. She studied Hindi, Varanasi history, Kathak (an Indian classical dance), peace and conflict studies and religion. She wore the traditional local dress (loose pajamas with a diagonal sash “and no skin showing above the elbows”). She gave up her beloved meat for a vegetarian diet. She visited temples, observed a mosque and sat on the Ganges’ steps watching the Hindu cleansing ritual to purify sins. She dodged free roaming cows (“they had so much attitude!”) and rode in rickshaws. And she never stopped asking questions.
“It’s amazing and beautiful to immerse yourself in a different culture. It’s an honor,” she said. “That trip definitely helped how I view people from different cultures.
“I’m interested in how they do things, not in judging. Approaching it as a student who wants to learn how they live opens a lot of doors for me,” she said. “I like learning about what is important – and why – in one culture or another, and how that influences policies and decisions.”
With the India study-abroad under her belt, Gonzalez participated in the dean’s global leadership program at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy, during the summer of 2016. Back on campus, she worked as a receptionist at ISU’s Multicultural Center and earned several scholarships and academic recognition awards.
Gonzalez’s father came to the U.S. at age 8, graduated from high school and went to work. He works for the U.S. Postal Service, and is the first of his siblings to own a home and a car. He believes in hard work as deeply as Christina’s mom believes in getting an education.
“My parents didn’t come here so I would grow up to be exactly like many people in Mexico who don’t have opportunities to study, never leave home and end up in a cycle of poverty,” she said.
“It was hard. But my dad taught me I’d never get something in life just because. I need to work for it,” Gonzalez said.
“I had a lot of great experiences at Iowa State. It was here that I basically discovered the world and what I want to do,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a foreign service officer was until I came to college.”
By all accounts, she has the makings of a fine one.