At the Women’s Union since her first year at Pomona, Yerika Reyes ’17 met Raisah Vesteinsdottir ’17 during her last year at Pomona when both became head coordinators of the WU this past fall semester. Reyes, a sociology major, and Vesteinsdottir, a biology major, struck a fast and deep friendship as they rolled up their sleeves to organize events and create a more inclusive environment at the WU.
Both deeply committed to social justice and activism on campus, Reyes and Vesteinsdottir have organized events such as the women of color in academia and study abroad lunch talks, the 5C women of color social and art shows and mixers fostering inclusivity.
“It’s a space where people can heal and relax with people and don’t feel they have to justify their presence,” says Reyes of the WU. The WU is the place that welcomed her as a first year student and provided her and fellow students with a space to discuss and explore issues from gender fluidity to race and class – and how these play out at Pomona.
“The head coordinator position is very unique,” says Vesteinsdottir, who was new to the WU her senior year after working as a caller for Star 47, the College’s Annual Fund student caller team. “It’s about understanding what the Pomona community needs and catering to that. We also juggle the line of the administration’s needs and policies and our understanding of the students’ needs; a valuable perspective to have.”
Reyes adds, “We have very wide and varied interests and all of it is grounded in making the world better, and challenging our home and work lives. We are going to leave Pomona with a good toolkit of understanding the world and knowing how to challenge injustice.”
As both Reyes and Vesteinsdottir prepare to leave Pomona in just a few weeks, they reflect upon where they come from.
Reyes hails from Chicago, the second of four children in a household headed by a single mother. “She’s my inspiration, my No. 1, the smartest woman I know,” says Reyes of her mother, Erika Oliva, a janitor who immigrated to this country at the age of 18 from Honduras.
Reyes is also a Posse Scholar who attended an inner-city public high school with more than 2,000 students. She was tracked into AP courses while she says, her older brother was placed in remedial courses in the same school – raising questions about how low-income students are tracked for success or failure.
By the time Reyes arrived at Pomona, she was trying to find answers to questions raised by these experiences and she found them in sociology. “Sociology made things I had observed growing up and in high school instantly click, and gave me the language to talk about things that I knew about but didn’t know there was a field of study,” she said. Specifically, says Reyes, it was also finding sociology done by women of color like Professor Gilda Ochoa. "[Sociology] which is [done] for and with communities. Sociology just made perfect sense for me.”
Vesteinsdottir grew up in Seattle in an immigrant community. Vesteinsdottir’s mother is from India, and her father from Iceland; both came to this country to go to college.
Vesteinsdottir recalls how her mother built a network of South Asian women who filled their house with friendship, laughter and food – even though there wasn’t a large South Asian population in Seattle. “She somehow found all these cool women to create an amazing network of Indian women,” she says and recounts the work – and fun – they all put into organizing, hanging out and celebrating weddings and babies.
“I am so grateful for that: I had a support system growing up,” she says “They taught me so much.”
Although Vesteinsdottir says it took her some time to settle and find her place at Pomona, having her brother (and twin) here made things easier – and in her last year, she found another support system: the WU.
Although both Reyes and Vesteinsdottir are still figuring out their immediate post-Pomona plans, they both want to put their degrees to good use. Reyes wants to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology in the near future and Vesteinsdottir is looking at opportunities in the areas of public health and public policy. Both plan to put the toolkit they built up at Pomona and the WU to good use.
“I think about all my great relationships I have with professors, students and staff,” says Vesteinsdottir. “Essentially, what I’m looking to do is continue to create relationships where I can learn and grow from the people around me. And then use that knowledge to challenge systems of inequality together.”