Photo courtesy of Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez

Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez trumps adversity

By Lauren Honeycutt

Homeless at 16 years old in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez quickly learned to be self-sufficient. Born in Los Angeles to two immigrants from Guadalajara, Mexico, Padilla-Rodríguez is the first in her family to graduate high school and attend college.

She is currently a junior at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing a dual degree in history and philosophy and a minor in ethnic studies. She now works as an undergraduate researcher for the Latino Research Center and is the co-founder of the youth theater program Spotlight Academy for Young Actors.

“When my mother and I were homeless, it was an incredibly difficult time,” Padilla-Rodríguez said. “While I was having to figure out where I was going to sleep on any given day and what I was going to eat, I also had to figure out how to study. I took refuge in school, refuge in my studies and particularly in after-school theater activities.”

After being homeless for three months, a friend took Padilla-Rodríguez in while her mother got back on her feet. She knew that if she were to overcome her circumstances, she would have to persevere in her studies.

Padilla-Rodríguez says that the theater program she was involved in was particularly powerful for her because she could be anyone on stage, which made her realize she could be anyone off-stage as well.

“Because I could take on any role I wanted, I learned to be an advocate for myself and really learned to believe in myself,” Padilla-Rodríguez said.

After graduating from Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas, Rodriguez was able to attend UNR with the help of grants and scholarships. With only $90 in her bank account at the beginning of her first semester, Padilla-Rodríguez began looking for more financial aid.

In the second semester of her freshman year, Padilla-Rodríguez applied for a spot in the Dr Pepper Tuition Throw Competition, and after submitting a one-minute video, she was chosen as a top-25 finalist to compete in throwing footballs into an oversized Dr Pepper can. ivon_drpepper

“I had a lot of friends helping me practice,” Padilla- Rodríguez said. “I spent hours throwing footballs. I would stack trash cans and use them as my target.”

In the midst of her practice sessions, she realized UNR’s quarterback, Cody Fajardo, sat one person away in her theater class.

“When I finally mustered up the courage to ask him to help me, he came out with me and taught me how to throw,” Padilla-Rodríguez said. “I can’t hold the ball properly because my hands are too small, but he taught me alternatives and was so helpful. He was very nice to do that.”

After finishing second place in the first round of the competition, Padilla-Rodríguez earned a spot to compete for the Dr Pepper scholarship on national television in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta during halftime of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Championship Game. With a score of 13 footballs in 30 seconds, Padilla- Rodríguez became the grand-prize winner of the $100,000 that has now funded her entire undergraduate education.

“I was a blubbering mess,” Padilla-Rodríguez said. “My life had been so difficult up to that point, and someone finally took the time to invest in me and my education, so I could invest time into other people. So yes I cried, and I said, ‘Dr Pepper is the best thing that has ever happened to me.’ It has enabled me to do good for other people.”

Photo courtesy of Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez While studying abroad in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez taught improvisational acting to children in an orphanage.

Photo courtesy of Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez
While studying abroad in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez
taught improvisational acting to children in an orphanage.

This year she received the Truman Scholarship, which is considered one of the most prestigious scholarships a student can be awarded. According to a UNR press release, “the $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarship is awarded annually to approximately 60 U.S. college juniors who demonstrate leadership potential and a commitment to public service. Padilla-Rodríguez is the University’s fourth Truman Scholar.”

She has been active in the Latino community through her research and her youth group. She teaches improvisational theater at title one schools that are predominately Latino in Washoe County, and works to help at-risk, low-income children.

She has also conducted her youth theater program and improvisation acting lessons in an orphanage in Mexico, an orphanage in Costa Rica and a community center in Cuba while she was traveling to visit family and studying abroad.

“I use theater as a tool for social change, the way it really helped me,” Padilla- Rodríguez said. “I reach out to people and offer my services when and where I can, and people are usually receptive.”

The other side to her work in the Latino community is her research and efforts to raise awareness. She has lobbied for the rights of immigrants and strives to provide opportunity to immigrants, despite the possibility of not having documentation.

Currently, Padilla-Rodríguez is in Washington, D.C. presenting her research to congress on the impact that immigration reform could have on Latino families with mixed-citizenship-statuses.

It is because of her hard work, extra curricular activities and collegiate success that Padilla-Rodríguez was chosen as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women of 2014 and is featured in their April issue.

With future plans to attend Stanford or Northwestern for graduate school, Padilla-Rodríguez hopes to earn a Ph.D. in history and a law degree. She aspires to become a Supreme Court judge, and as her junior year comes to a close, she looks forward to her summer internship with the Chilean Congress. While in Chile, she is excited to implement her youth theater program.

Lauren Huneycutt can be reached at