Access, Opportunity, Learning

Honors student Maria Camila Restrepo Chavez ('17) Speaks JMU's Language

Honors College
Maria Camila Restrepo Chavez

It’s easy to assume that “being the change” starts with the faculty, staff, and administration. Honors student Maria Camila Restrepo Chavez (’17) reminds us that JMU’s unique learning environment is actually grounded in the traditions, great minds, and honorable actions of students. Maria Camila was born in Colombia’s “Ciudad Bonita” (Most “Beautiful City”), Bucaramanga. She learned to work hard by watching her divorced mother work hard to support the family, and listening to her maternal grandmother and the nuns at her day school.

Maria Camila’s life took a dramatic turn at age seven. Her mother got laid off and had her severance pay stolen at gunpoint on the way home in the city marketplace. “She was completely destroyed by that,” remembers Maria Camila. “My grandmother wasn’t there that day and my mother couldn’t stop crying. She hatched a plan to go to the U.S. and get some quick cash and then come home again. The job was door-to-door sales in Falls Church, Virginia. Without knowing any English she was able to sell water filters. I was still back in Colombia with my grandmother and younger sister.”

When her mother returned to Colombia she found no work. She resumed working in the U.S., eventually bringing Maria Camila, her sister, and her grandmother, after she had saved up enough money to rent an apartment and buy plane tickets. Her grandmother sought asylum because one of her uncles in the Colombian Special Forces had run afoul of the drug cartels and anti-government guerrilla groups and put the whole family in jeopardy. Differences between her mother and Colombian father and a custody fight punctuated her first years in Virginia.

Maria Camila’s family settled in Ashburn, a place her mother thought would be a great place for the children to get an education. Her mother always put education first. Maria Camila was held back at first, as she knew little English, but by the time she was in second grade (thanks in part to two extra summers in school) she’d caught up.

“It was a very confusing time for me, but I don’t think I really knew that this was an unusual thing to have happen. I’d never seen snow and never been cold enough to put on a heavy winter jacket. Everyone would be so sad when we made family calls back to Colombia. American food was different. People seemed cold and hostile because the culture in Colombia is that neighbors are nearly your family. My mom was an educated person by Colombian standards. She was in hospitality and had a management position. But here she had to work in a grocery store.”

Soon it became apparent that Maria Camila was not just another ESL student struggling to fit in. She found her place, she says, as a “normal student” and “average violin player.” By the time she entered Ashburn’s Briar Woods High School, though, she was becoming recognized as an outstanding academic.  Recently, she celebrated a memorable naturalization ceremony, and is today a dual citizen. “I didn’t know that I had that immigrant kid story,” she recalls. “Because of what I experienced, and I guess because of who I am, a lot of adults seem to think I’m really mature. And other kids thought I was kind of motherly and protective. I was always watching over my sister very closely. I was definitely a rule follower: ‘I can’t cause trouble, I can’t put more stress on my mom.’ I think that was the subconscious motivation for me. I never thought that the rules could be broken. Now I recognize that I never had a typical childhood, or I thought that I couldn’t have a childhood like that.”

As a senior Maria Camila took an AP Psychology class with Mr. Manish Shah. She found him really funny and engaging. She decided to become a JMU Psychology major. “It turns out I really like Psychology because of the things that happened in my life. When we talked about depression and anxiety in class, I definitely saw some of my family members in those pages. When we talked about identity, I started asking who I was. That’s a really loaded question. It makes you start creating an identity for yourself.”

Maria Camila recalls that she wasn’t Hispanic enough to be identified as Hispanic, and also wasn’t white enough to be a white American. “We didn’t listen to the Beach Boys growing up. I only saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the first time last week. I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. I’ve never watched Friends. We didn’t have Christmas on Christmas morning. We expected to go out and do things on Christmas Day. And everything was shut down. We didn’t have cereal for breakfast. And so my honors roommate Amanda Harner noticed all of these things, and finds it really interesting.”

Maria Camila says that she “just had that feeling” that she belonged at JMU. It was a beacon for access and opportunity. “I pictured myself as a college student here. Everyone was friendly, smiling, and happy. And it wasn’t too far from home. Harrisonburg is so completely different from Ashburn. We’re outside the Northern Virginia bubble here. We do not have the NOVA attitude. I found out that people exist at JMU that are like me.” Harrisonburg, she says, is a very diverse community, one where she can easily pick up ingredients that her grandmother can cook with on university breaks.

Very quickly, Maria Camila became heavily involved in university life. “Getting involved really makes your college experience worthwhile,” she says. “I applied to SafeRides and gave back to the community. I did the peer mentoring program just so I could give back.”

“Other people were always so encouraging and supportive of me growing up. I never let the emotional turmoil of my childhood get to me. I’m not dependent on people. I’m really independent because sometimes other people let me down. My growth as a human being and as a student at JMU can show other people that hard work can be defined in a different way. My mother works 14 hour shifts in the middle of the night. She works two jobs. It brings in a paycheck that supports my education. My hard work reading books, doing research, and taking classes is helping me broaden my horizons beyond the paycheck. My mom wants me to do what I love, because she has to work at a grocery store seven days a week. And I don’t thank her enough for that.”

Maria Camila is the epitome of the engaged JMU student. She’s completed an Honors Program practicum with the Gus Bus, JMU’s home-grown “reading road show,” helping students from all over the world, including Latin America, learn how to read. She participates in the service projects of JMU’s Psychology Service Organization. She’s been a teaching assistant in the Honors Program’s freshman experience course. She’s been a First Year Orientation Guide (“FrOG”) and did a JMU Counseling Center internship where she is developing a passion for college personnel student administration. She works in the Center for Assessment & Research Studies (CARS) as a student assistant. Last year she became a key member in a year-long co-curricular record project backed by the JMU IMPACT Leadership Program, an activity usually reserved for JMU faculty, staff, and administrators.

Last Summer she studied abroad in Spain on a prestigious Gilman Scholarship and then returned to work for Explo, a summer education program in the Boston area.

“Shouldn’t everyone be this engaged?” she asks.

Maria Camila admits she likes college students because they are eager to learn, are open to new experiences, and because everyone has a different story. Like her, they have moved away from home to confront new challenges in a healthy, mutually supportive way. Still, she says, “When I’m walking on campus, I’m just one of so many students. I don’t feel any different from any other undergraduate. I take classes. I do homework. I know the traditions of this awesome institution. I know why I’m here and not someplace else.”

Back to Top

Published: Friday, January 29, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

Related Articles