By Kimberly Wethal
Dec. 9, 2015
While her lungs may not have been working the day Fernanda Contreras was supposed to apply to be the commencement speaker for this semester’s ceremony, she said, her heart was.
After being given permission to submit her application the next Monday, Contreras said she was writing her speech with “everything she felt in her heart” while in the hospital the day she was supposed to apply.
“I had said, now I’m going to write what I need to hear if I was sitting down in one of those chairs,” Contreras said. “I needed to hear I was somebody, and that I did have what it took to be successful, to be in college.”
She had been told by one of her mentors, McNair Scholars program director Whitney Supianoski, that applying to be the commencement speaker was “the least she expected of her.”
More than 840 students will receive their degrees at the commencement ceremony, starting at 10 a.m. Dec. 19, according a UW-Whitewater Marketing and Media Relations email. The ceremony will be held in the Kachel Fieldhouse.
Contreras is a double major in political science and economics, with a minor in Spanish. She had been a triple major in semesters prior, but decided she needed to graduate at some point.
She even had to step down from her role as president of Latinos Unidos in order to focus on her academics and graduation. She said she invested a lot of time in the organization so the decision was hard, but necessary.
Contreras describes the decision to buckle down and focus on her studies as her “first selfish decision.”
Throughout her semesters at UW-Whitewater, Contreras joined the Gamma Alpha Omega sorority and was vice president of the UW-W Panhellenic Council, served as both vice president and president of Latinos Unidos and has served as a Resident Assistant in Fox Meadows and Wellers Halls. She’s also a King Chavez scholar and was voted both Homecoming Queen and Greek Woman of the Year in 2014, among other awards and accomplishments.
University Housing Assistant Director for Community Development Tiffany Tardy, who first met Contreras in the beginning of her college career through the King Chavez scholar program, said she was “a breath of fresh air.”
“She was so humble and very excited for the opportunity to be in college,” Tardy said. “She was one of the students [who] was most grateful for the scholarship and the opportunity to be a part of the program.”
Tardy continued to work with her throughout her academic career as Contreras was “invested” in the program and stayed in contact with the future King Chavez scholars. She became a mentor to the scholars through an in-class seminar as well as outside the classroom by taking them under her wing, Tardy said.
“That’s what I love about her, that she has such a big heart,” Tardy said. “She wants to give everyone the same time of opportunities that she’s been given.”
While she doesn’t have stage fright (Contreras said she could probably talk to a wall and it would say something back to her), she is concerned about her speech not being good enough, despite her overwhelming message that you are good enough.
“I know my speech was good enough to be chosen,” she said. “Now I just need to know that it’s okay, and that I have to believe in what I preach, and what I’m saying.”
The path to UW-W
Unstoppable perseverance on the part of Fernanda’s mother is what brought the Texas native to Wisconsin, but it was her own perseverance that kept her here.
Fernanda and her family moved from the Lone Star state to Jefferson, Wisconsin around the time she’d needed to start her college career. Her father had moved to Jefferson previously, so when her mother decided to save the marriage and follow the move, Contreras found herself living in Wisconsin.
It was through those tough times that her younger sister Edel said she knew she could go to her “hero” for anything.
“She means everything to me,” Edel said. “I know during the good times and the tough times she’s been there. Even if it’s a boring thing that doesn’t matter, she’s very smart and has gone through a lot, so she knows just what I mean. Whenever I need help, she knows just what to say … I just love her so much.”
It was the timing of the move that brought her to UW-W, however, because UW-Madison had turned her away because her late application and suggested she take a year off and come back next fall.
Before the move, she had originally planned to go to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, but didn’t have a way of getting back there.
“The day for college was coming up, and I said, ‘So, Mom, are you going to take me back?’” Contreras said. “She was like, ‘I’m not letting you go back. So start looking for colleges here.’”
She was admitted to UW-W as a King Chavez scholar in the weeks before classes started and started her college career as a commuter from her new home, but that wasn’t quite good enough for Contreras. She felt like she was missing out on everything campus living had to offer, so she “ran away” from home to move into Arey Hall for her second semester of freshman year.
She then tried for the job of an Resident Assistant during that first semester on campus, because it would secure for her “a home away from home,” along with helping her pay for college on her own. She joined the Gamma Alpha Omega sorority and other organizations, continuing to set goals every semester for what she wanted to achieve.
“If I could tell my college career in one word, it would be perseverance,” she said.
Prior to UW-W, Fernanda had been in the “out-crowd;” a hard concept for one to wrap their mind around as she now says hello to people walking through the University Center every few minutes.
She’d ran for high school class president three times and never gotten it, but knew that with persistence, she’d be the first woman president or a senator for Texas.
Contreras said her classmates and teachers hadn’t had high hopes for her future, but all that mattered to her was that she knew she would prevail.
She credits God, and her “pride and joy,” Edel, who showed Him to her, to helping her make it through it all.
“I was always predicted to be pregnant in high school, and a dropout,” Contreras said. “Everybody said that all I was good for was papers and babies, and I was told by teachers in my high school career, ‘Girl, I don’t think you’re going to make it. Have you looked into technical college?’ All I needed to hear was that I was enough, that I was unique and that the world needed me.”
‘How can I make everyone happy?’
No matter where Contreras goes after graduating, she wants to be in a place where she can help others.
That’s the main motivation behind the double major of political science and economics, as she hopes to pursue a law degree following her graduation from UW-W and eventually get into the political sphere in order to help those who have suffered economic downfall.
It’s about giving a voice to those who don’t know they have one, Contreras says.
“I see that there’s a lot of people who have been silenced because they don’t know their rights,” Contreras said. “How can we help that, how can we prevent that? Well, I’m going to go know everything, by the word, and know everyone’s rights and inform them about it.
“Especially now. I never thought it would get this crazy with police brutality,” she said. “That’s something that always motivates me. We need to stand up. We need to do something. Something’s got to shake.”
She describes herself as “selfless” and a feminist, and strives to help others before herself, which she admits people look down on her for.
She knows to expect the criticism she’ll get in the future for being a woman in politics, both from the media and people in general, as they tend to get looked down on more than their male counterparts. While the negative stereotypes about women in politics caused Contreras to reconsider her future at times, someone has to do the job, she says.
However, not everyone looks down on her wish to put others first. Tardy has seen the impacts of Contreras’ dedication to helping her peers at UW-W.
“She really pushes students beyond their current limitations, or what they think their boundaries are,” Tardy said. “A lot of times working with the underrepresented students, that tends to be the largest concern. They’re not sure if they’re capable of certain things, and she always likes to set the highest expectations and let them know that they’re amazing, and that they can do this.”