A mother’s daughter
It was inevitable that Deyanira Ariza-Velasco, an associate professor of Spanish at Westminster College, would be become an educated, powerful and successful woman.
She was her mother’s daughter after all, she said.
“She’s an extraordinary woman,” said Han Kim, a public health professor at Westminster. “I think many people kind of underestimate her or they think of her as a foreigner because, you know, she has an accent and they think she’s just this outspoken Latin woman.”
Deyanira, who prefers to go by her first name, said she was raised in a well-educated and influential family from Bucaramanga, Colombia—a city famed for its literary movement and prestigious universities.
“I grew up in this environment,” she said. “For that reason, books and education [were] very important.”
From an early age, Deyanira said her parents taught their four children the value of knowledge and books.
“I think that the important thing in my family is that we are very dedicated to studies,” Deyanira said. “Our life No. 1 rule is to be honest and sewn together. This is one of the things my parents [left] to us — [be] honest and be together.”
But she said it was her mother, her role model, who cultivated her desire to learn.
“She was very strong,” Deyanira said. “My mother was an educated woman, and in this time that was [not] normal — in her time and in her age.”
Deyanira said the greatest lessons her mother taught her and her sister were to be unique and to hold great values.
“She taught my sister and me that you have to be different,” she said. “This was the thing that made me push my life — that I had to be different because my mother was a kind of different woman with a great sense of humor and for that reason I always had this support [in becoming who I am].”
Though she said her mother was her role model, both her parents worked toward educating and raising their children, which ultimately led to all four siblings studying law at private universities.
Shortly after finishing her first degree, Deyanira was appointed as a judge in a small town just outside of Bucaramanga.
Afterward, she continued to climb the political ladder. The governor appointed her as the mayor because of her family’s dedicated involvement in law and politics, she said.
“For me, when I was in politics, that was more interesting,” she said. “There were no [women] who had been mayor. I think I was very successful, but women in this time were not [powerful] like that. I was young.”
Deyanira was a curiosity, and she said people didn’t quite know what to do with her.
“They wouldn’t pay attention to me,” she said. “For that reason, I had the idea that if you are drunk or making a public scandal on Sunday, I am going to make [a] different [punishment]. You are going to clean the town. You know — something that made people go, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Though Deyanira was successful, politics are competitive and she said it was lonely as a woman. So she took matters into her own hands.
“For them, they saw a woman who was skinny and pretty,” she said. “I feel like I had to fight this and I need another woman. I wanted to show them there were other women like me.”
Deyanira said she required another woman to be appointed in the political system because she wanted to show Colombia’s patriarchal society that women can be educated, powerful and successful.
Together, Deyanira said, they demanded respect.
“People who interacted with her [in Colombia] treated her [with] more… I don’t want to say respect because I also feel like we treat her with respect [here], but it was in a different way,” said Tristan Palola, a Spanish-Latin American studies major at Westminster who traveled with Deyanira to the country where she was born.
While Deyanira’s upbringing may have prepared her for a prosperous life, Palola said he thinks her passionate and dedicated hard work facilitated her success.
“She sets her destiny,” he said. “She has really high standards for herself, which worries me because she doesn’t sleep that often.”
For most of her childhood, a low-intensity civil war raged throughout Colombia. But by the 1990s, the Colombian conflict had escalated and Deyanira said she had no choice but to leave.
“She’s been through a lot,” Palola said. “She had a way different upbringing than me, with a decent amount of violence and warfare in Colombia.”
Deyanira continued moving up in Colombia’s political system, which she said became difficult to live and work in.
Eventually, she said her safety was jeopardized.
“Colombia, in this time, [had] a really bad political situation,” Deyanira said. “The guerrillas [were becoming] involved in narco-traffic, and this was the problem I had. Then I had to leave the country and [at] this time, [many] people had to leave.”
Though it’s unknown exactly how many people have fled Colombia, a recent Washington Post article estimated that millions have been displaced from the decades of conflict.
After her friends, family and coworkers urged her to flee, Deyanira said she chose to come to Utah, where she had distant connections.
“It takes a lot of courage to leave your country,” Palola said.
Prior to coming to the United States, Deyanira spoke no English and reentered school to become an English as a Second Language student.
“I had to fight many fronts,” she said. “First, the language. Second, the women here [were], for me… Different.”
She said these differences — attitudes toward family, dating and education — made her feel a social disconnect and it was difficult to fit in. Instead, she surrounded herself with other Latina women.
Deyanira went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Utah and began her career as a professor at Westminster College, where she said she finds solace and comfort in her students — many of whom said they think she has dedicated her life to seeing them succeed.
“She is by far one of the most passionate people I’ve met who enjoys work day in and day out,” Palola said. “She’s just always looking out for me. I think she’s got my back in many different ways.”
After years of taking her Spanish classes, Deyanira helped Palola coordinate an internship in Bucaramanga. While there, Palola said he grew closer to her and her family.
“Her and I have a unique relationship,” he said. “It would be sacrilegious to say she is a motherly figure because I have my mom. But because I live on the other side of the country and my mom is still in Vermont, she’s definitely been there and been a good support system—a network. Even though she’s a professor, it’s definitely a friendship, as well.”
Palola is not alone. Many of her students said their connection goes beyond a student-professor relationship.
“It’s great that she is so proud of the students that are in her program and she knows what’s going on with us in other aspects of our lives and not just in Spanish” said Elaine Sheehan, a junior English and Spanish double major. “I’ve always felt appreciated by Deya.”
Palola said the dedication and passion Deyanira embodies is what Westminster is all about.
“Take a class from her,” he said. “She’s probably the most passionate professor at Westminster.”