Nationally-known advocate for immigrant rights receives friend of education award

Isabel Castillo

Isabel Castillo

Salem - Isabel Castillo knows firsthand the struggles that immigrant youth face when earning an education - and making a living - in the United States.

Castillo, whose family moved to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley from Mexico when she was 6 years old, graduated high school with a 4.0 grade point average. But her options to attend college initially seemed impossible.

After a year working as a waitress and saving money, she enrolled at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., one of a growing number of universities that accepts undocumented students.

Since earning a bachelor's degree with a major in social work in 2007, Castillo has made it her mission to advocate for education and rights for undocumented immigrants like herself.

She is the first recipient of the Helen C. Hanes Friend of Education award, which was given during a luncheon on Wednesday, June 25 as part of the Margaret Sue Copenhaver Institute for Teaching and Learning. This three-day training program for teachers and administrators, held annually at Roanoke College, was created to honor Margaret Sue Copenhaver, a retired teacher from Richmond.

The Helen C. Hanes Friend of Education award is named for the late Copey Hanes, sister of Copenhaver and founder of the institute.

The award, which will be given every other year, is not intended for a full-time teacher, but for a recipient who has contributed to education in important ways.

Castillo has gone to great lengths to push for education reform and support of undocumented immigrants in the United States and in Virginia.

She is founder of DREAM Activist Virginia, an advocacy organization for immigrant rights, and co-founder of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. She has led rallies for this cause, including a non-violent sit-in at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office, for which she was arrested.

Castillo received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of San Francisco in 2011 for her advocacy of the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide permanent residency for immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools and meet other requirements.

She now works for Virginia Organizing, a non-partisan group that works with communities to address injustice and issues, such as health care, immigration reform and discrimination, that affect quality of life.

Castillo, who has a two-year work permit in the United States through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, shared with the institute's educators ways that they can support undocumented students in their schools. She said teachers should encourage these students to go to college, help them find scholarships and allow them to take high level classes that challenge them.

"No human being is illegal," Castillo told the group.

The institute's sessions, held June 23-25, consisted of workshops, discussions and speakers. About 120 educators from schools in Virginia and other states attended.

Roanoke College, a classic liberal arts college in Salem, Virginia, combines firsthand learning with valuable personal connections in a beautiful, undergraduate setting. Roanoke is one of just seven percent of colleges nationwide with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious honor society. The Princeton Review lists Roanoke as the 18th most beautiful campus in its "Best 376 Colleges" 2012 guidebook.

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-Published June 26, 2014