Early in spring 2021, the Texas Exes Hispanic Alumni Network partnered with RGV Familia on a mentoring program that connects a group of students with successful professionals who share similar experiences pursuing work and school in a place that feels so far from home. This new initiative aligns with RGV Familia’s efforts to provide holistic support to students who come to UT Austin by way of the Rio Grande Valley.
We sat down with RGV Student Ambassador Bella Vargas and her mentor Priscella Maldonado Moezzi, a model community education specialist for the United Way for Greater Austin, to learn more about their relationship—and how their South Texas roots further deepened their connection.
Priscella, could you please share a bit about your work with United Way for Greater Austin?
This is a brand new role where I am able to utilize my personal and professional experiences to help others. A large part of my work is ensuring children attending AISD schools and their families are connected to local resources. This year, we are piloting our resource and navigation program directly to 24 schools in AISD, providing resource information and referrals in various languages to families in need of support. Using our ConnectATX platform, that is accessible online, through chat and our helpline, we are essentially providing a one-stop-shop for community members, social workers and helpers out in the community the opportunity to connect people with the resources they need.
Bella, how did this connection with Priscella help you along your career path?
This was a perfect pairing because she got her master’s in social work, and that’s the path I’m interested in pursuing. She guided me to different areas of social work, which is so helpful because I’m going to be applying to grad school this fall. I’m passionate about working with children, especially low-income minority groups, so I’m confident this is the right path for me.
Priscella, what was it like working with Bella? Did you learn anything new in the process?
I didn’t have to give much advice because Bella is on a pathway to success through and through. She’s a go getter! When we’re talking, I keep thinking to myself that she could give me some great advice. She has such a strength for seeking opportunities on her own, and she doesn’t shy away from big opportunities. That is a testament to who she is.
Bella, how does it feel to hear these kind words from your mentor?
It’s really nice to hear someone who is already in the professional field speak those words. I’ve been told by others that I’m a go-getter, which is something I attribute to my mother, who is also a UT grad. She taught me that the more you do, the more you get done. She also tells me, “I’m not going to tell you what to do; you’re going to figure out the challenge yourself.” That’s not to say I never faltered. When I started out in college, I wasn’t doing so well, so I found some people who could give me advice to help me do better. It’s rewarding hearing that praise from Priscella because I worked hard to get where I am today and never took school for granted.
Bella, how helpful was it to have a mentor from South Texas?
Even though we didn’t grow up in the same town (I’m from Brownsville and she’s from Corpus Christie), my aunts and uncles live in her hometown, and I visited them quite a bit. We also share a lot of similar interests, which helped deepen our connection. We both know what it’s like to experience a culture shock when first coming to UT. Once you head up north, even the Spanish and the dialect is different. That’s why I really like being a part of the RGV Familia organization; it feels like a home away from home.
What was that experience like for you, and how did you get overcome feelings of homesickness?
I agree with everything Bella says about culture shock. Family is at the core of where I’m from, so it was difficult being away from home and trying to figure out where I fit. I eventually found my safe place at the Multicultural Information Center—now called the Multicultural Engagement Center. I spent all four years working at the center— one year as a student program coordinator for the Students for Equity and Diversity org, the remaining years as a student assistant—and that experience was so essential to my growth at UT. Now, it’s so exciting to see how much that center has grown—and how other programs like RGV Familia are supporting students who need it the most.
Priscella, did you have a mentor during your time at UT Austin? What was that experience like?
I was also fortunate enough to be a part of the Longhorn Link Program, which helped me find a mentor as well as peers who came from first-gen families. To this day, my mentor, who was a program coordinator at the time. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was lost in the beginning, and she redirected me down a rewarding career path. This opportunity to be a mentor is so incredibly rewarding. Just being able to plant that seed and direct a student down the path to success is the biggest thank you I could give to my mentor.
Priscella and Bella, what is the best advice you would like to extend to your fellow Longhorns?
Priscella: My best advice comes from my dad. He would always say, “You don’t know unless you try.” Even to this day with this new position I’m in, I take that advice. You don’t want to let fear overshadow the power you possess that can make an impact on your life.
Bella: Don’t be afraid to try new things, to get involved in student orgs, to learn more and gain more. At the same time, master time management so you can prioritize your activities and not fall behind in your commitments.
Priscella and Bella, what does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
Bella: Hispanic Heritage Month marks the history of our roots, of our collective stories that trace back to Spain, Mexico, South and Central America. I am extremely proud to be Hispanic. Hispanic, for me, means color, joy, charisma, flavor and a whole lot of hard work. I left my family and my community, which centers on our rich multicultural heritage, to pursue my dreams at UT Austin. Since then, my main drive has been to do my very best every day to show that, as a Hispanic Woman, I deserve to be here, and that we have something special to offer. My family and I celebrate by embracing our culture, such as cooking or baking traditional family recipes and traveling to Mexico to sightsee or learn more about our heritage.
Priscella: Being able to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month gives me the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices of generations before me. I am so proud to be Latina and of all the rich history, values and culture that has made me who I am today. Our family tradition is having a meal together.