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Once homeless, former Canyon Springs High School student achieves national honors

As a high school student in North Las Vegas, Ivon Padilla-Rodriguez had to worry about more than her grades; she had to worry about where she would sleep at night.

For a time during her junior year, Padilla-Rodriguez and her mother were homeless, living out of their car and sleeping on couches belonging to friends and sometimes strangers. Often she would learn of her sleeping arrangement when her mother picked her up from school.

“For three months, we had to look for somewhere to eat; we had to look for somewhere to sleep,” Padilla-Rodriguez said. “My mom would go to Catholic Charities for food.”

Even when she did have a home, the water and electricity were sometimes shut off.

But that didn’t deter the then-junior from immersing herself in school and theater and finishing at the top of her class.

Padilla-Rodriguez graduated as a valedictorian from Canyon Springs High School in 2011 and went on to double major in history and philosophy at the University of Nevada, Reno.

On Tuesday, the honors college student was one of about 60 nationwide to receive a Harry S. Truman Scholarship for juniors with leadership skills and an interest in public sector work. The $30,000 scholarship is to be used toward graduate education in law, social work, education, international affairs or public administration, health or policy.

Padilla-Rodriguez hopes to earn a law degree and a doctorate in history.

“Ivon’s story of accomplishment and community service is all the more inspiring because of her background,” UNR spokeswoman Jane Tors said.

The Truman Scholarship selects about 10 percent of applicants, who require university endorsement. The honors college helped with critiques and panel talks that prepared her for an April 4 interview with Truman representatives, lawyers, law professors, federal judges and former legislators.

They quizzed Padilla-Rodriguez on her policy proposal to improve commitment to current immigration laws and create more equitable ones in the future.

She would like to update the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 to expand the definition of family beyond that of a mother, father and child. She would like to create a registry where self-defined families can register for legal recognition to protect against deportation.

“It’s not reflective of the new kind of families that inhabit the U.S.,” she said, giving the example of grandparents and aunts and other relatives who care for children.

As the daughter of immigrants, immigration reform is a cause close to her heart.

“Ultimately I’m interested in pursuing law as a tool with which I can use to better the Latino community and its conditions,” she said.

Padilla-Rodriguez also was named one of Glamour magazine’s Top 10 College Women of 2014 this month.

Today she will travel to New York to participate in Glamour’s winners conference Thursday and Friday, where she will work with a celebrity panel on dream jobs and participate in discussions with leaders in her industry.

Padilla-Rodriguez also conducts original research on the social impact of immigration reform on the Latino population in America at UNR’s Latino Research Center. Later this month, she will present her research to Congress as part of the 18th Posters on the Hill contest in Washington, D.C.

In 2011, she won a $100,000 Dr Pepper tuition giveaway, and has served as a spokeswoman, appearing on cans and in advertisements for the past two years.

The scholarship helps pay for her schooling and provides her with a place to live.

To give back, Padilla-Rodriguez founded a theater program called Spotlight Academy for Young Actors that teaches improv to at-risk Latino youth. She teaches at Title I schools in the Washoe County School District and also has taught in Mexico, Costa Rica and soon will teach in Chile.

“There were times that I thought about dropping out of (high) school, but eventually I really realized that for me, school, particularly after-school theater programs, were my big refuge, and they are ultimately what gave me strength,” Padilla-Rodriguez said.

Contact reporter Kristy Totten at ktotten@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3809. Find her on Twitter @kristy_tea.

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