PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANIEL JOHNSON
As a Mexican immigrant, Southeastern alumna Sayra Lozano grew up in the midst of uncertainty. But this didn’t stop her from pursuing her dreams and living a life dedicated to helping her community — wherever and however that may be.
One of Sayra Lozano’s favorite spots in Lakeland is located at Lake Mirror. Situated on the shore of the lake, the 41-foot-tall colorful Albert Paley sculpture, Tribute to Volunteerism, resonates with Lozano. As a Dreamer and advocate, she is passionate about community development. “I see the different colors and arms, all different but working together to make the sculpture. To me it represents that the community cares. Lakeland cares. I felt connected to it because I cared about Lakeland,” she adds.
Often referred to as “Dreamers,” Lozano is one of 1.8 million immigrants who moved to the United States at a young age who were granted protection from deportation under President Barack Obama’s administration through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This act enabled Lozano and many other Dreamers the opportunity of pursuing higher education.
After earning her associate’s degree in her home state of California, Lozano moved to Lakeland in 2014 as a transfer student at Southeastern University. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership, she quickly got involved in the Lakeland community. “Students I had met from Southeastern talked about the culture and community. It really resonated with me and spiked my interest,” says Lozano.
During her first year at Southeastern, Lozano acclimated to student life through participating in anything from student leadership to student government. She soon gravitated towards Enactus, a global nonprofit made up of a community of academic and business student leaders committed to using entrepreneurial actions to transform lives. The student-led club had more than six community development projects in Lakeland and one in Honduras.
“Sayra is a diligent leader, who has invested so much into our local community. I have had the privilege of getting to know her over the past year, and I have seen her relentlessly and selflessly advocate for others. We are proud to have Sayra as an alumna of SEU.” – President Kent Ingle
In 2015, with help of another Enactus member, Lozano started a program called Aspire to help post-incarcerated women obtain employment. They worked in partnership with Zoe’s Journey, a local nonprofit that supported women and children facing life-altering situations.
“Once we put together the curriculum, we realized that [the women] were having a hard time building a resume, so we sat with them individually and helped them build their confidence. I watched as it gave them renewed confidence in their abilities. It made me realize how empowering basic resources can be in improving livelihoods. Aspire was one part of the puzzle in helping them piece their life together,” says Lozano.
Through Aspire, students not only assisted in building resumes, but also taught the women how to start their own businesses through making and selling jewelry at the Downtown Farmers Curb Market in Lakeland. From there, they were taught how to budget and re-invest the money they made. While Lozano was involved with Aspire, she saw a number of women become employed, making it one step closer to helping them get their children back.
“I really enjoyed Enactus because we were identifying need-gaps and filling them. I found my passion for community development and made this my career path. I got more involved in the community, and I loved how Southeastern was so much a part of the community,” says Lozano.
She continued to get involved with the Lakeland community through helping resident immigrants study for citizenship tests, as a volunteer with Vision Activa. After receiving her undergraduate degree in the spring of 2017, Lozano stayed at Southeastern as a graduate assistant to earn her master’s in business administration and interned at City Hall with the Community Redevelopment Agency.
“That was an incredible experience to see how Lakeland was growing and how city development was working with the community. It was exciting to see another innovative side of community development,” says Lozano.
In July of 2017, she participated in the Public Leadership Institute of Polk County. Although Lozano was not seeking public office, she found what she learned in the workshops to help her engage the community. In the leadership institute, Lozano spent time with local politicians, mayors, and city council members. She even assisted one of the local politicians with his campaign. “It was wonderful to be with people who loved the community so much that they gave up their time and money to help. It was very educational and inspirational. I hope one day to apply what I learned and serve a community in that way,” says Lozano.
The leadership institute also shaped how she would engage the community in her work for Dreamers. A year ago, Lozano shared her story with several national newspapers, including the The Washington Post and The New York Times, but she felt somewhat of a disconnect as they weren’t local papers.
“I felt a commitment to my community. I knew Lakeland and loved Lakeland. I knew this was something the community could help with. I reached out to The Ledger and they decided to do a full story on me,” says Lozano.
Lozano shared how she moved to the United States at the age of five from her home country of Mexico. With a legal visa at the time, the goal was for her to pursue an education. “Education was always the main goal. It was the American Dream,” says Lozano.
As her visa was to expire, her family met with several attorneys to see what options she had. They gave her only two solutions: be given up for adoption or marry a citizen at the age of 18. “Personally, I see marriage as something that is sacred, and I believe that God is bigger than my circumstances. It is unfortunate that those are the solutions Dreamers like myself are given,” says Lozano.
Lozano’s dream was to attend college, but without a legal documentation, it would make this task nearly impossible. When she graduated from high school in 2012, President Obama passed DACA, renewable every two years, providing protection for Dreamers and a path for her to go to college.
“It felt like it was an answer to my prayers. From there, I was able to obtain the basic documentation: a driver’s license and a work permit. Those two documents gave me a sense of humanity. I was no longer hidden. I was able pursue my dreams. Because I got those basic things later in life, I still appreciate them. I see every blessing as a stepping-stone to help others. It all ties into my passion for community development,” says Lozano.
Lozano credits some of her work as an advocate to an internship she had on Capitol Hill as a student. “It was a desire to learn more about how that process worked and how I can help others. This interest came about from the knowledge of how radically my life can be changed by legislators — how much laws can impact and shape someone’s life,” she says.
She was one of 41 interns from across the nation chosen by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and was assigned to the office of Representative Raul Ruiz, MD. As an intern, she helped give private tours of the Capitol, write legislative letters, respond to calls from constituents, write briefings, and attend meetings. “I felt American in every sense of the word. Having that experience helped me see how politics work from the inside and helped with advocacy work,” says Lozano.
As an executive order of President Barack Obama, DACA soon came into limbo when President Donald Trump took office. The Trump administration announced early in 2017 that they wanted to phase out DACA. A deadline was set in March of 2018 for house representatives to pass legislation for the Dreamers. Although several bills have been presented from both sides, Congress has yet to compromise on the DACA issue — currently leaving uncertainty for the future of DACA recipients. With current legislation, DACA recipients are not given a pathway to earn citizenship.
“I was at a moment when I thought it was going to be my last year in the United States. It was a matter of being able to find my voice not only for myself, but for others. I have always been taught not to be a victim of my circumstances, but rather to be a catalyst of change. The community was kind of silent about it. It felt like I was alone, but I knew it was what I was supposed to do,” says Lozano.
When Lozano discovered that DACA was being phased out, she started to share her story publicly. She began sending letters to members of Congress but realized that the best way to approach it was to go to their offices to lobby and to be published in the newspapers that landed on their desks. In the fall of 2017, Lozano contacted The Ledger to tell her story of being a Dreamer. “Once my story came out publicly, the community responded in a positive way. For every troll I had online, I had twice as many people supporting me in person,” says Lozano.
Since then, Lozano has been able to advocate for Dreamers on the local and national level. In the fall of 2017, she went to Capitol Hill to share her story with Congress. The President of Southeastern, Dr. Kent Ingle, was also at Capitol Hill and invited her to join him in some meetings.
“Sayra is a diligent leader, who has invested so much into our local community. I have had the privilege of getting to know her over the past year, and I have seen her relentlessly and selflessly advocate for others. We are proud to have Sayra as an alumna of SEU,” says President Ingle, a founding member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
“It felt like another God moment to have Dr. Ingle’s support,” says Lozano. “He taught me that, beyond the policies, this is a human dignity issue. His guidance and example have been transformative for me. I am beyond blessed to have his example of leadership in my life.” Ingle also invited her to speak at Southeastern’s yearly conference and executive board meetings.
Lozano had the opportunity to go back and advocate for a second time at Capitol Hill, where she spoke to more than 15 Florida representatives. “For me personally, it was very important as a Christian to be there and share my perspective. As Dreamers, we want to do things right. We are not asking for a handout; we are simply asking for the opportunity to do things the right way. All the life experiences I have had, culminated to my advocacy work. I would not have known how to approach this issue if I hadn’t had my internships. I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable to tell my story to the community if I hadn’t been so involved in it. Every step felt ordained for such a time as this,” says Lozano.
With the help of a retired schoolteacher, Nancy Futch, Lozano was able to share her story locally at political events, a high school, community gatherings, and churches. “I was speaking from the heart. Once they heard my story and understood the problems, they realized this is something that could and should be resolved. I wanted to humanize an issue that has been so politicized. My story represents only one of the 1.8 million Dreamers across the nation. It is a perfect example how this legislation can radically impact someone’s life,” says Lozano.
“To receive that support from the mayor and advisory board was very significant because it was scary for me to share my story publicly. I received it on behalf all of the Dreamers in our community. It reaffirmed my belief that Lakeland cares.” – Sayra Lozano
In December of 2017, due to her efforts for Dreamers, Lozano was awarded a certificate of appreciation for Outstanding Heroism and Being an Example by the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board of Lakeland. “To receive that support from the mayor and advisory board was very significant because it was scary for me to share my story publicly. I received it on behalf all of the Dreamers in our community. It reaffirmed my belief that Lakeland cares,” says Lozano.
Her passion for community development ties into her upbringing. “Whatever I do in my professional or personal life, I am first and foremost representing God and my faith. But I also represent Dreamers and other immigrants, so I feel a commitment to keep proving how we contribute to our communities and the nation as a whole,” says Lozano.