Once Homeless, Reynoso ’12 Graduates with Honors and a Passion for Human Rights Law

By schwartzsa | July 10, 2012

Growing up in the Bronx, Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso ’12 was taught that with hard work she could go anywhere and achieve anything. But during the nights she spent sleeping in New York City subway stations, depending on the kindness of acquaintances for her next meal, she was shaken. Attending college was no longer a certainty, and studying abroad seemed almost unimaginable.

A Difficult Journey

Among the first in her family born in the United States, Reynoso was living the American Dream. She had food on the table, access to a quality education and a house to call home. She had even earned a dual scholarship to attend Aquinas High School, an all-girls private school in the Bronx. But everything changed when her family was evicted in the wake of the mortgage crisis.

While the rest of her family moved in with a relative in Yonkers, Reynoso faced a difficult choice: either find other accommodations or give up attending Aquinas. Arriving late to class after a three-hour morning commute simply wasn’t an option, so she slept at her grandmother’s nursing home closer to school. This proved to be only a temporary solution. When she was caught by a superintendent and forcibly removed after six months, Reynoso resorted to sleeping in subway stations and eating at soup kitchens.

“I couldn’t tell my school because I was afraid they would label me as an ‘at risk’ student for not paying my portion of the tuition,” says Reynoso. “I didn’t want to lose my scholarships. The trains didn’t run early enough in the morning—I would arrive hours late and I didn’t want to get kicked out.” She kept up appearances at school by asking friends to use their showers and stay for dinner. “I had gone from being fiercely independent to overstaying my welcome.”

She could hear classmates whispering. Her friends were becoming suspicious. “They finally asked me what was going on and I had to tell them.” The truth opened many doors for Reynoso. Her friends’ families rallied to her aid, allowing her to rotate to a different friend’s home each week, earning her lodging by doing household chores.

“I was really lucky that I had friends who were able and willing to accommodate me,” she says. “And they really liked me there. I was motivated to earn my keep so I could go to school.”

College was a dream. Reynoso knew that she would need significant financial support to attend. “I applied to a ton of schools because I wanted as many options as possible—I knew what it was like to have no options,” she says. “Of course, I really wanted to travel, but when you’ve slept in the subway system, it’s not exactly something that you seriously consider. It came down to two things: financial support and a place that I could grow and develop the most. Arcadia was a place that I could really call home.”

At Arcadia University, Reynoso received the Leadership Award, Knight Scholarship and a Distinguished Scholarship.

Becoming a Global Leader

Reynoso arrived on campus feeling excited and truly fortunate to be a college student, but because she had seen a lot—the reality of hunger, poverty and homelessness in America—she had been forced to grow up quickly. Adjusting to traditional campus life was a challenge.

“I was bitter—bitter about what I had seen and experienced,” she admits. But she took advantage of every opportunity and resolved to channel her negative feelings into positive action in Arcadia’s Office of Community Service. Not only did she earn the Americorp Scholar Award, but she found a home and a family. “Cindy Rubino, community service coordinator—she was like a mom.”

In addition to becoming a community service officer, the political science major got involved in other campus activities and organizations. She joined the Environmental Network and tutored in the Learning Resource Center. For all her contributions to student life, she received the Campus Achievement Award in 2011.

By the time she was a sophomore, Reynoso knew she wanted to live a life of service, giving a voice and hope to the human trafficking victims she learned about in courses at Arcadia.

“My courses helped to solidify my understanding of human rights and law, while encouraging me to think critically of how to fix the problems I study. Instead of just knowing facts about gender inequality, female genital mutilation, child brides, poverty, war, and human trafficking, I am able to brainstorm strategies to alleviate the suffering of victims.”

But she knew in order to best serve victims of human trafficking, she had to do more than brainstorm; she had to get to know them as individuals. Arcadia provided Reynoso with the pathway and the means to get there.

In 2009, she studied international law, Swahili and contemporary East African issues at the Arcadia Center for East African Studies in Tanzania. During this time, Reynoso helped set up the foundation for the Women’s Witness Protection Program with the Tribunal of Rwanda, writing a proposal for its implementation after researching active witness protection programs.

“My experiences in Tanzania impacted my life so much,” she says. By the time the semester was over, Reynoso had done more than make acquaintances: she had truly connected with members the community. “I was offered 40 acres of land by a pastor who runs an orphanage, to build my school there.”

Reynoso also studied in India for the 2011-12 academic year. She completed an internship for the microfinance non-profit organization Parvati Swayamrojgaar while studying public health, environment and culture. While interning, she interviewed families from the Janata Wasahat slum in Pune to understand their needs. She also conducted a penetration survey to determine how many families have benefitted from the micro-finance opportunities.

“My experience in India was phenomenal and challenging,” she says. “I cannot wait to return for my host sister’s wedding and to volunteer at other non-profits that deal with beggar street families.”

Reynoso graduated magna cum laude as a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Phi Beta Delta and Phi Alpha Sigma Honor Societies. She is preparing to take the LSAT with the goal of becoming a human rights attorney. Though Reynoso missed her graduation ceremony (she was still finishing up her duties in India), the lack of formal pomp and circumstance didn’t detract from the meaning of the day—she is already living her dreams.