2014 Student Highlights

José Antonio Castelan Vargas


José Antonio Castelan Vargas is a two-time Latinos Unidos Scholarship winner with BS and MS degrees in business from Iowa State University. Vargas had immigrated to Iowa from Mexico with his family at age 11 to find a better job market and school system. He found a language tutor where he attended school in Sioux Center, IA, and has since always been encouraged to do well in his classes. “Beyond high school was our goal as a family,” Vargas said.

Vargas finished high school in Sioux Center and moved to Ames to study business. “It just came natural to me,” he said. “It is just a natural feeling to me that business is something I wanted to do. And I wanted to study, just like some people want to be a doctor, I think that’s my path.” Along the way he crossed paths with Lena Robison and learned about the scholarship opportunities available through Latinos Unidos.

“One of [the scholarships] was for my bachelor’s and one of them was for my master’s when I came back. And that’s when I was talking about that I still needed some help, and Lena told me I could still apply,” Vargas said. “A thousand dollars, that’s quite a bit of money and it helped me out a lot.”

Now, after completing his master’s degree, José appreciates the help and networking opportunities he has had through Latinos Unidos, but admits there is still an opportunity to reach out to more Latino youth. “There is that need for more education, and to emphasize it. I think we are kind of stuck, still. We’re slowly but surely emerging with more Latinos being professionals, but I think we’re still stuck in that path.”

Organizations like Latinos Unidos are crucial to this effort, he said. “If you really serious about doing something for your future. If you want to do something other than work at a packing plant an organization like this, if you network it, if you get into it, it is really to your benefit. My thought is I am very thankful for being here and having gotten involved.”

Leydy Mendoza


Leydy Mendoza is a Mexican-American immigrant who had moved to Des Moines with her family to follow her father who had already been working in the state. Education had always been important to her family, but Leydy’s first few years were difficult without any formal English training. When the opportunity finally came to get language tutoring in fourth grade, she had already picked up enough English and was well on her way to catching up in all other areas as well.

After graduating high school, Leydy was accepted to DMACC and became the first in her family to attend college.
“I always want to go to school because in my family education was always stressed, and that you don’t go anywhere in the world without it,” Leydy said. “I hope to become a doctor. That is my main goal, but there are other interests that I have like being a bilingual attorney, just people helping out in general.”

Leydy enjoys working with Latinos Unidos and appreciates the scholarship and other support she has gotten from the organization. Leydy continues to stay involved and is now managing the Latinos Unidos Facebook posting regularly about the events and news surrounding the organization.

Leydy is currently examining her opportunities beyond DMACC and is anticipating at least another four years of college. “I was the first one in my family to go to college and it’s a lot of stress,” Leydy said, “but it’s worth it because I am learning a lot and I am really helping my family out: I know my sister will have better opportunities.”

Marisol Herrera


Marisol Herrera is by every definition an over-achiever. After graduating from Hoover High School early where she had been a JROTC member for three years, Herrera took a short break before going back for more schooling. Herrera attended Grand View University where she earned degrees in criminal justice, human services, minors in psychology and sociology, and a major in Spanish.

“I couldn’t have done it without my mom,” Herrera said, who had always told her school is like a lake. “You can’t get stuck in the middle, you’ll drown. Now she just told me, ‘you finished it, you finished your lake.’”

Herrera had been introduced to Latinos Unidos through her Spanish instructor at Grand View. “It helped me out a lot, I didn’t have to take a loan,” Herrera said. She now encourages other students to get involved. “Teenage girls and guys are dropping out of high schools. As Latinos Unidos members we can go out into the community and talk to kids so they continue school.”

Herrera is looking ahead towards her master’s degree and eventually a career in criminal justice. She admires her brother who already works as a border patrol agent doing special assignments, and may follow in his footsteps after completing her education. She knows her journey isn’t over quite yet, but is ready saying, “It’s a big lake, but it’s going to be worth it.”