DECEMBER 12, 2023 — Four years ago, Deniff Lara was minutes away from dropping out of UTSA. The pandemic was in full swing, and she was experiencing financial difficulties, food insecurity and grief from the loss of family members who had passed from COVID-19. It didn’t seem worth it to her to continue and was on the verge of dropping out. But she had a supportive network.
Now, on the cusp of Commencement, she is not only graduating as an Honors College student but also having completed several fellowships and internships, triathlons, a double major and with countless experiential learning activities on her resume.
The transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t come easily. But her vast list of accomplishments is continuously fueled by her resilience to this day.
As an undergraduate, Lara served as the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy (HCAP) representative of the President’s Student Advisory Council, interned for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, served on the Higher Education Student Advisory Board, and spent a summer in Pennsylvania at Carnegie Mellon’s Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute. Additionally, she is a Latina scholar benefitting from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and is an active community leader advocating for increased youth engagement and civic participation.
In between those milestones, there were plenty of failures and setbacks. For Lara, though, each failure was an opportunity to rise again, even stronger than before. She was determined to ensure that those challenges wouldn’t define her.
“Identity can become a scary thing when met with success. You must be careful not to measure your worth based on the things you can or cannot do,” she said. “I was able to have these incredible opportunities and do really cool things, but I also happened to fail a class and didn’t always get the job I wanted. I continued to struggle, for all four years, realizing that both success and failure could simultaneously follow through.”
Deniff Lara graduated over the weekend from the Honors College.
Born and raised in San Antonio, and as a first-generation college student, Lara chose to study at UTSA for several reasons. She knew it was a Hispanic Serving Institution with an excellent reputation, but she wasn’t sure where to start because in her view, she didn’t feel qualified to attend college.
At the same time, she felt confident enough that UTSA had the resources to help students like her. She was also drawn to UTSA by its affordability and diverse areas from which to choose a major.
By connecting with faculty and students and saying yes to nearly every opportunity that came her way, she was able to pursue life-changing experiences.
“I was given many leadership opportunities by listening to others, and embracing the fact that my perspective was valuable and needed to be shared. Now I’m very honored to be in the position to give them back,” she said. “I get to be the person to encourage someone to apply and reach for the stars, just like someone once did for me.”
“I met Deniff in the fall of 2021 in an online class,” said Gina Amatangelo, UTSA associate professor of practice. “We were all weary from the pandemic, and it was one of the more challenging times in my teaching career. I honestly thought that Deniff had a filter on her video because she seemed to sparkle all of the time. When I met her in person, I realized that that was just who she is at her core. She shines brightly and brings energy, new ideas and dynamism to every space that she occupies.”
Lara’s time at UTSA was full and focused. She pursued a double major in sociology and public administration with a minor in nonprofit management.
“I can’t imagine not having this combination of studies,” she said. “Sociology was my first love and taught me how and why problems exist. However, public administration naturally arose as my commitment to solving those problems grew deeper. And, effectively, nonprofits followed suit as one of the conduits to doing so.”
In between her studies and internships, Lara volunteers her time at several local organizations. She serves as a youth leader for her church, provides resources for at-risk women and children, and is particularly passionate about serving the immigrant population in San Antonio. Lara says she’s proud of the opportunity to pass on all the lessons and mentorship that were offered to her as a UTSA student.
It doesn’t seem like there should be enough time in the day for the UTSA undergrad to fit everything in, but she builds rigorous schedules and sticks to them.
“Motivation only takes you so far, but it’s discipline that carries you the whole way,” Lara said.
Lara credits her sport with instilling discipline into her daily routine. As a dedicated member and recruitment chair for the UTSA Triathlon Club, Lara discovered the joy that comes from hard work and discipline.
“We don’t necessarily want to get up at six in the morning to run,” she said, “but getting that exercise in and conquering the day helped sustain my productivity.”
Amatangelo added, “Deniff has done so much more than earn a degree during her time at UTSA. She has gained the respect of faculty, staff and her peers, and fostered strong relationships with colleagues in the community. She has consistently pushed herself to take on new challenges every semester. She leans into opportunity and persists even when faced with challenges.”
Lara says that she’s humbled to be a UTSA student on the eve of graduation.
“I couldn’t have done it without every single person who supported me along the way,” Lara said. “I was very privileged to find people to be with me, in the middle of my mistakes, and when I didn’t have someone, my faith carried me along the way.”
The connections Lara built would be her lifeline for the “rainy days” that came through. “It’s not a matter of if that tough time is going to come, but when,” she said. “You always have to be prepared for whenever you are feeling down.”
While impossible to list all of the connections and supportive systems she’s built, Lara notes that several people and organizations in particular have been her constants: the TRIO Student Support Services staff, the Honors College faculty including Andrew Chapman and Megan Balasundaram, Amatangelo and her public administration classmates, the HCAP Student Success Center, the Alamo Fellows program, and her extended work family at Greater:SATX and in the mayor’s office.
“Lastly, I couldn’t have done any of this without my mother and grandmother,” Lara said. “Although their expectations were high, they would always be the first to invest in my crazy dreams. Having their unconditional love and support allowed me to go beyond what I ever imagined.”
Lara has several job offers on the table after graduation, but she is weighing her options carefully. In the immediate future, she plans to visit her family in Veracruz, Mexico and reconnect with her closest loved ones. Eventually, she plans to take a job in city service and pursue a master of public administration outside of Texas.
In the meantime, her focus remains on building community, helping others foster healthy relationships, giving opportunities to disadvantaged youth, eating lots of tacos and completing an Ironman Triathlon.
“My future plans might not be totally concrete, and I know for a fact they won’t be conventional,” Lara said. “But I know I can trust my community to lean on as I figure out my next steps.”
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The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.
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