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Story Next Door: Respecting people without pedestals
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Story Next Door: Respecting people without pedestals

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In addition to serving in the ever-changing landscape of education amid a pandemic and renewed calls for racial equality, Isabel Nuñez Pérez may be the only student government president to outlast an Oregon State University president who wasn’t serving in an acting role.

Records are scarce concerning student government leadership in 1941, when Frank Ballard stepped down as university president after one year, so it’s difficult to say whether she holds the distinction, but one doesn’t need to travel deeply into the annals of history to know Nuñez Pérez’s tenure is historically significant. She headlined, and won, on the first dual Latina ticket in university history with Vice President Metzin Rodriguez.

Nuñez Pérez, 22, originally from Northern California, began her term as Associated Students of OSU president on June 1 and has presided over the student government through a stretch of time — and conflicts — unlike any of her predecessors.

Isabel Nuñez Pérez mug

Isabel Nuñez Pérez

Although she’s grown into a mainstay in heated discussions on major topics, she, like many students, spends her free time backpacking, rock wall climbing and binge watching cooking shows, saying “Chef’s Table” is a favorite. She’s also an avid reader, listing “Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma,” by Ana Castillo, and “From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, among others, as formative reads.

Not everything she reads is so directly educational.

“I like reading romantic novels,” she said between laughs, adding that she’s “diving back” into fantasy fiction, a genre she had a childhood affinity for.  

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Nuñez Pérez started at OSU as an engineering major before switching to political science with a minor in Spanish, and said she initially struggled to find her footing as a woman of color at the predominantly white institution.

“I got really nasty looks when I was talking to my mom in Spanish in a dining hall,” she said, recounting an early experience at OSU.

The hostility Nuñez Pérez faced was not novel to her. She said it was an early fixture of her experience as one of the few people of color attending an affluent elementary school near the vineyard and ranch she grew up on that her father, Arturo, manages. Her mother, Otilia, works as a housekeeper.

For Nuñez Pérez, the covert and overt racism that often kept her from speaking out in school as a child serves as additional fuel to address the injustices she sees in adulthood. The peer mentorship she eventually found at OSU and generational knowledge of other advocates is a crucial part of her ascension. She took a flier on a Spanish class during her freshman year that proved to be a turning point.

“I just took one on a whim spring term of my freshman year, and that’s what kept me here because I started to make friends and get to know people,” Nuñez Pérez said. “I started to find community and, from there, being more conscious of the issues at the university.”

Nuñez Pérez said a line can be drawn between that Spanish class during her freshman year and now, when she regularly provides a jolt of intensity and tenacity at the start of OSU Board of Trustees meetings. She’s an outspoken and confrontational advocate for a number of causes on campus. From improving support services for those affected by gender-based violence to additional funding for multicultural programs to platforming student concerns about the new campus police force, Nuñez Pérez hasn’t shied away from offering direct criticism of the board or Alexander prior to his resignation.

While many people may avoid such pointed communication with powerful people, Nuñez Pérez, who said she even finds discomfort with her own title, believes it’s a necessary act. She said she’s not better than anyone else because of her title, and she doesn’t think anyone is better than her because of their title.

“That’s the biggest takeaway, at least for me, is just removing people off their pedestal — obviously, you’re still going to respect people no matter what,” she said. “You can still respect people without pedestals.”

K. Rambo can be contacted at 541-812-6091 or k.rambo@lee.net. Follow on Twitter via @k_rambo_.

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