Meet Scholar Estefany Pineda

A DREAMer’s Dream

Estefany Pineda 

Steppingstone 2011 / Boston Latin Academy 2017
Senior, UMass Boston, and DACA advocate

Estefany at an interview

Against all odds, Estefany Pineda has held fast to her dream of college ever since she began her Steppingstone journey as a fifth grader.

On her very first day at UMass Boston in 2017, breaking news shattered the joy of the moment. The new administration announced that it was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, putting in question the future of Estefany, her two sisters, and hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants often known as “DREAMers.”

That September day became her first day as a vocal DACA advocate, leading her to speak out in an interview with WBUR.

She only let the media use her voice and middle name at first. “As I went further into it, I wanted to say I’m here and I shouldn’t have to hide,” she explains. “At this point, I’d rather be in it fully and not half way.”

Early on, given her immigration status, she’d had doubts whether higher education would ever be an option. “Many people thought I’d never go to college,” she says. “I wanted to prove them wrong. When someone says you can’t, show you can. Do everything to move forward.”

This September, the Boston Latin Academy alumna began her senior year at UMass Boston, majoring in international relations with a double minor in public policy and Latino studies.

Thinking about how far she’s come reminds her of one of Steppingstone’s lasting lessons: “hard work pays off.”

Showing UMass Boston pride!

Even before the uncertainty around DACA’s fate, Estefany worried whether she could even afford college. As a high school senior, while volunteering as a Steppingstone tutor in her East Boston neighborhood, she found a personal advocate in a Steppingstone advisor who stepped up to help and encourage her to apply for scholarship aid.

Three days before Estefany had to decide if she could accept UMass Boston’s enrollment offer, she heard the uplifting news. She’d been awarded a scholarship presciently established by a Steppingstone donor to provide “last-dollar” funding to Scholars in jeopardy of not being able to finance their education. “I cried when I got the call,” she says. “It changed my life.”

The scholarship was one more way that Steppingstone “opened so many doors for me that I didn’t think I’d be able to walk through,” she adds.

It’s one of many life-transforming moments along her path. She came to Boston at age nine from El Salvador, reuniting with her mom after six years of being apart. She and her sisters had lived with their grandmother, but threats against the family made her mom fear for their safety. The girls left in the middle of the night on a three-week odyssey to join their mom in the U.S.

Advocating for DREAMers

After all the upheaval, Estefany struggled at first to find her academic footing at a school where no one would speak Spanish to her. With help from a neighbor, her mom sought out a new placement in a East Boston-based program designed for children new to the country and the language. Once there, “I was able to learn English superfast,” she says.

By 5th grade, she was thriving, and a teacher introduced the idea of Steppingstone. Looking back, while everything’s a bit blurry and happened so fast, all that’s followed from her decision to apply shows her the power of “putting yourself in situations that you may not feel you’re ready for.” Her Scholar days continually reinforced that lesson.

Through it all, “my struggles have made me stronger and want to go further,” she adds. “I may not have grasped that at the time, but they are part of me.”

As she looks to her future, she pictures herself working to help immigrant communities, perhaps in a nonprofit setting. Knowing how lost people can feel, she’d like them to know that someone has their back.

Today, while still in college, she’s already largely doing that in her advocacy work. This past summer offers a case in point. As the Supreme Court wrestled with challenges to DACA, she put out a video call to action through the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. She urged others to “to fight for us and fight with us.”

With Rep. Ayanna Pressley

She also has a “very ambitious, far-reaching dream” of being at the table for making policy. Seeking an inside look at state government, she served as a constituent services intern within Governor Charlie Baker’s office. As a Bank of America Student Leader, she also interned with the government relations and public policy manager at Mass Mentoring Partnerships.

To her, this year’s unprecedented events have brought into even sharper focus the need for officials at every level to lead with compassion. Amid COVID-19 and the national reckoning with racism, “I see how much other people are hurting,” she says. “I take things that happen to others very personally.” That empathy has always fueled her passion for making others’ lives better, whether as a peer mentor at school or as a youth leader at church. Ultimately, when she imagines what leaders ought to bring to the table, “it’s important for you to love people and love what you do.”

In 2019, as only a college sophomore, Estefany had the “unreal” experience of joining Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a leader she deeply admires, as her guest at the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol. Even if the message that night disappointed her, she came away inspired that “it’s a time to stand up and speak up and continue to have hope that something will change.”

Confident that “a change will come,” Estefany keeps bravely sharing her story. If there’s a story to give cause for hope these days, it’s hers.