It may have taken longer than usual for Juana Blanca Olga López to get her doctorate degree, but then her name is longer than usual, too. The only child of parents whose own parents came separately to the U.S. in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Blanca has always shown uncommon persistence. First, when her father left when she was nine years old and, then, later, when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “These were difficult times at very different times in my life,” says Blanca. “Without a father in the house, I had to grow up fast. And when Mom got sick, I had to take care of her while I was going to school for my Ph.D. and working full time. But there was no question in my mind that I would do it.”
Blanca was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1968, three years after her parents married. She also attended schools through high school in El Paso, after which she entered the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and graduated with a B.S. in Elementary Bilingual Education. “It was tough at first,” Blanca says, “because I had to work full time while going to school. But I knew I wanted to teach so I just kept going.”
Blanca thinks her ROTC training in high school helped her learn discipline and perseverance. She also says she was blessed to have a few good teachers and mentors who encouraged her. However, most were uninspiring and very traditional in their approach. It’s one of the reasons she chose teaching as a profession.
While she was getting her Masters of Education at UTEP, she was also a Teacher Mentor in Math and Science at the Ysleta Independent School District. “The program was part of the innovative Urban Systemic Initiative (USI) for grades K-12,” she says. “I really enjoyed my Masters program because I was able to immediately apply what I was learning.”
After getting her Masters in 1997, Blanca started work on her Ph.D. Her doctorate studies proceeded as she struggled financially. Securing financial aid gets more difficult the higher you go up the education ladder; scholarships for Ph.D. candidates are rarely offered. That’s why Blanca is especially grateful for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which twice provided her with grants. “Getting my doctorate was painfully slow,” Blanca admits. “But I took at least one 700-level course every semester. I was determined to finish!”
In May 2009, Blanca did finish. Her mother passed away soon after. “I am so blessed that she was able to see that day,” says Blanca. “My mom was such a strong emotional and psychological support for me throughout my education.”
Blanca also credits her mentor and advisor, Dr. Rudolfo Chávez-Chávez, for getting her through the rough periods. “He always believed in me, even when I would doubt myself; he was my greatest ally when things got tough.”
What advice does she have for other Hispanic students? “Getting a doctorate is the greatest proof that a Latina can beat the odds, because the statistics of not finishing are stacked against us. I want to motivate other Latinos, especially women, to persevere … to keep going no matter how long it takes.”
But other things were in store for Yrizarry. Her job gave her the opportunity to meet a board member for New York Telephone, which later became Verizon, and he offered her a position. Now 20 years with the company, she still feels synchronicity with its core values.
She has dedicated her career to elevating those around her. A founding member of 100 Hispanic Women and current Board Chair of ASPIRA of NY, leadership and educational enrichment organizations, Yrizarry’s personal motto, which she learned from her mother, is “to whom much is given, much is expected.” As a single parent who grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico, Yrizarry’s mother taught her to remember that “you are part of something larger…There is an expectation to be a leader, and give as much as you get.”
A passionate supporter of the Hispanic community, Yrizarry recalls feeling a swelling of pride when she learned she received an HSF scholarship from her college dean. “It made me feel like I belonged (at Cornell). It was a paradigm shift for me because it was a Latino organization” bestowing the honor.
She has carried that pride and devotion with her throughout her professional and personal experiences. Currently, as Vice President of Workplace Culture, Diversity and Compliance at Verizon, Yrizarry ensures that alliances with organizations such as HSF are part of the company’s strategic plan. Prior to her current post, she served as director of Operations and National Workforce Development Programs for Verizon Foundation, where she oversaw a $75 million budget, which included scholarship support.
Driven by the memories of the assistance she received, Yrizarry strives to help others see their own significance. “It takes so little to let people know they’re special,” she contemplates. “It’s validating and it’s powerful and all of us need to do more of this.”