Posted on March 7, 2022 by Amanda Cerreto

March 8, 2022 - As an incoming student to the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2020, Deniff Lara 's first year of college was nothing like she imagined.

Deniff Lara Lara was ready to learn how to jump into university life and all things UTSA - as a first-generation student, she felt like there was so much waiting to be discovered. But then the country remained at a standstill as the Coronavirus pandemic raged. The shift to online learning was difficult, to say the least.

"I never imagined my college years would look anything like this," Lara said. "Last year was one of the hardest years of my life."

Lara continued to struggle throughout the fall and spring semesters with feelings of isolation and grief, as family members and friends passed away, while her schoolwork mounted. She felt as if she didn't know where to turn. She was a click away from dropping out when she discovered TRiO Student Support Services .

Student Support Services (SSS) is a TRiO program that provides opportunities for academic development, assists students with basic college requirements and motivates students to successfully complete their postsecondary education. The goal of SSS is to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants. For Lara, that goal was reached.

“Deniff and I frequently met to intentionally to map out strategies that prioritized her mental and emotional health so that she could thrive academically and socially,” said Jaz Burgess , student development specialist. “Over time, she put into practice many of the concepts from our discussions and made the decision to maximize her life.”

Slowly but surely, Lara began to find her footing. It was a transformation she credits partially to TRiO. “They gave me a reason to continue, because they believed in me,” she said. “The fact that I knew that someone believed in me really made a difference. That was the main reason why I didn't drop out - because I knew someone was counting on me to be the best I could be.”

“That was the main reason why I didn't drop out - because I knew someone was counting on me to be the best I could be.”

Armed with a renewed sense of vigor, Lara jumped back into university life and decided to try everything she could. She took classes in architecture, career planning, and more.

“When I found Sociology, I fell completely in love with it,” she said. “It just made sense to me. It's the way I see the world.”

Now a student enrolled in the College for Health, Community and Policy , Lara wouldn't stop there. Inspired to create change from societal structures, down to individuals, she added a second major in Public Administration and Policy. “How can I help the most amount of people?” she asked. “Public administration is my continuation of trying to serve people at a higher level.”

Lara Deniff Lara thrives on social interaction and meeting people - a true sociology major - so despite the pandemic, she still managed to join several student organizations. From campus ministries such as CRU and Chi Alpha, to the lighthearted “bubble believers,” she integrated herself into several facets of campus life.

“My faith resonated with me a lot through the struggles I endured,” she said. “Without knowing that I still had a purpose in life, I would have been blind to most of the opportunities ahead of me. But by seeing people invest that kindness and love in me, I truly was able to give back and reflect my potential in an exponential way.”

Now with campus operations back to normal, Lara's commitments have multiplied. She currently serves as one of the representatives for the President's Student Advisory Council , and Student Services Fee Committee, representing HCaP students and bringing their issues to administration.

“I simply asked a lot of questions. I kept applying myself and trying everything, even when I knew I could fail,” Lara says. “I still have a lot to learn and discover, but I will continue to try it all.”

The “keep at it” attitude has also enabled Lara to earn opportunities outside of UTSA. She is currently serving the Mayor of San Antonio's office as the assistant intern for Chief of Staff.

Lara emphasized that her lack of experience wouldn't hold her back, and she encourages other students to grasp every opportunity, even if they don't feel ready. “How can you have a chance if you don’t try?” she asked.

The internship at the mayor's office is a highlight of her time so far at UTSA. “It’s been one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had,” Lara said. “It’s a very healthy environment where not only can I learn, but I can actually grow as a person and as a student. It has also challenged me in ways that I’ve never been challenged before, allowing me to pursue my biggest dream to give back to my community. Because by caring for people, you can never be the same.”

Looking back on the immense changes that have happened in such a short amount of time, Lara is decidedly grateful that she didn't take another path. “It's easy to stop when you're struggling,” she said. “At that point in time, dropping out seemed like the right thing to do. I wouldn't have blamed myself for going through with it. But now I know that persistence and resilience really does pay off. Better things are yet to be seen along the way in the future.”

— Amanda Cerreto