Student-Activist Brings Personal Experience and Passion to Immigration Advocacy

Laura Hoyos discusses starting American University’s Define American chapter and her goals as president of the immigration advocacy organization

By Leo Versel

Laura Hoyos AU Define American
AU Define American President and immigration student-activist Laura Hoyos, pictured on February 22, 2017, explains her considerations regarding her organization’s response to President Trump’s actions targeting undocumented immigrants

For Laura Hoyos, being raised in New Jersey by parents who were undocumented immigrants to the United States was a struggle.

“I had the opportunity to arrive here as a US citizen because my dad passed that down to me,” the Colombian-born president of American University’s Define American chapter said in an interview.

“However, throughout my middle-school and high-school years, my parents were undocumented,” Hoyos continued. “So even though I did have US citizenship, I still experienced the difficulties and concerns of having parents that don’t have documentation.”

Hoyos arrived in the United States from Colombia when she was 8 years old. Now, Hoyos is 22, and her whole family lives in New Jersey. Hoyos is a transfer student from Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ, and she is finishing her senior year at American University, where she studies political science.

Hoyos described the differences she experienced between living in Colombia and going to school in the United States.

“Growing up in Colombia, the whole neighborhood is like a family,” Hoyos said. “You really feel a sense of community. You all help each other and know each other very well.”

“Coming to D.C. was a huge culture shock for me because I did not get that same feeling of community the way I did back home in Colombia,” Hoyos explained. “Even if you do get close to people, there’s still some kind of distance. It’s harder to get that feeling of community here.”

To build community and feel more connected to campus, Hoyos established AU’s chapter of Define American, a non-profit immigration advocacy organization that has chapters at 18 US colleges. Hoyos established the organization’s AU chapter in November 2016, and she said that this is the first semester it is active.

Hoyos said that her personal experience with immigration fueled her passion for advocacy and inspired her to start Define American’s chapter at American University.

“Growing up in a household with two undocumented parents, I’ve always been interested in the topic of immigration,” Hoyos explained. “It’s something you can’t shy away from because it’s the reality every single day.”

“I started by wanting to learn more about how I can help my parents and how my parents can help themselves,” Hoyos said. “Through that process of learning, I realized that it’s something I am very passionate about. I feel very strongly about different immigrants’ stories and the difficulties they go through once they arrive here.”

Hoyos had not previously been involved in immigration advocacy, but she was president of Bergen’s student government and has had experience in several leadership positions. Hoyos was surprised to find that when she first came to AU, the university did not have a “space or place where students can speak about the topic of immigration and identity.”

Per American University’s Student Organization Network database, AU Define American’s purpose is to provide a space for students to share personal stories about immigration. The group’s profile in the database says that AU Define American aims to “serve as a story sharing platform where students can share and discuss stories regarding the topic of immigration.” Hoyos said this is the first semester that the AU chapter is officially active.

Hoyos explained that her objective for the organization is to inform students who would otherwise be uneducated about this issue.

“My main goal as president of AU Define American is to inform people about the issue of undocumented immigration,” Hoyos said. “I want to provide facts and information that will shape the way people feel about immigrants, immigration policy, and immigration reform.”

“I would like to have a campus that has educated students on this topic,” Hoyos added, “students who know and understand the process that immigrants go through and their real stories. I think the more correct information that you’re giving, the less likely people are to put immigrants under one category without taking anything else into consideration.”

Hoyos said she feels that immigration has always been an issue she is passionate about. She said that she will exercise her passion to educate others about this issue at every opportunity she gets.

“I feel that being a first-generation immigrant, regardless of the work that I’m doing, is something I identify with very strongly,” Hoyos said. “So, I’m always applying that passion to anything that I do.”

“Though I was not directly involved in the way I am now,” Hoyos added, “I feel that I’ve always made it my mission to make immigration a topic of conversation and highlight that wherever possible.”

“If I ever have an opportunity to educate someone and provide them proper information regarding the experiences that immigrants have when they come to this country,” Hoyos continued, “then I take that opportunity, and I do it.”


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American University Journalism graduate, drummer, reporter, researcher, writer, third culture kid, Washington Wizards fan, and past Education Week and Agence France-Presse intern.

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