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Stephanie Delgado
Cornell Law School

Class of 2014

Her mother’s shop smelled of leather—sharp with mellow undertones. Next door, the sweet scents of fruit and esquite enticed customers to stop. Look. Buy. Some haggled in languages foreign to the girl, others in Mexican and Central American Spanish dialects.

But it was the rhythm of the place, the melodious blend of voices, cultures, lives, stories, and struggles that captivated and inspired her. And, so inside this Los Angeles swap meet, Stephanie Delgado ’14 dreamed.

“I wanted to be a doctor, go to Harvard, and help Mexican immigrants because Mexican immigrants had it really hard—like my parents,” she recalls.

Her parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. They met at a Los Angeles swap meet, fell in love, and married. While they eventually legalized, their struggle and the challenges faced by her swap meet family and friends endowed Delgado with determination, empathy, and maturity.

One of her high school teachers—a lawyer and her mentor—Daniel Sanchez, recognized those traits as he taught the young mind.

“Stephanie had a maturity far beyond her years,” Sanchez recalls. “She could quickly grasp complex material and understood how to apply legal cases we were learning about to current situations. I knew early on that the law would be an ideal fit for this incredible young lady.”

Turning dreams into reality

Whether she was learning English by listening to Beatles’ cassette tapes her father purchased or sharing textbooks at an underserved public high school, Delgado was determined to live out her dream.

Today, one dream is complete. A Harvard University graduate, Delgado is now working on her juris doctorate at the Cornell Law School.

“I’m not a doctor,” she says with quick grin, “but I’m a lawyer—a doctor of law.”

Looking back, Delgado believes her swap meet experiences had a profound influence on the way she perceives the world. Listening to stories of harrowing border crossings and tales of riches to rags, Delgado says she “learned to listen with open eyes and an open heart. I learned that labels meant nothing and that every person mattered despite whatever label he or she was assigned.”

Although she is one short academic year away from two Ivy League diplomas, Delgado is humble. She would not be where she is today without help from wonderful teachers, she says.

“To this day I still talk to them, and I acknowledge that I wouldn’t be here without their help and the help of so many other people in my life. I worked hard,” she says, “but so many other people looked after me.”

And she has not forgotten their help. Between her years at Harvard and Cornell, Delgado decided to give back. She raised funds for AIDS research with AIDS Walk LA. She also received the Transnational Justice Legal Fellowship, an award that took her to Mexico City. In the city she worked with a nongovernmental organization supporting Mexican women’s and workers’ rights, researching and translating text for a documentary about the femicide of poor, disenfranchised women in Quadis. It will be presented to the United Nations when it is complete, Delgado says.

She also learned what it means to be an activist outside of the United States when she marched in front of Mexico City’s city hall. During the march, she, along with others, were attacked by police—bringing the differences between American and Mexican law into stark contrast.

“It was a good experience,” she reflects. “Growing up a Mexican American in LA, I had this idealized vision of Mexico, and even though we visited our family in western Mexico, going to Mexico City was very different and very cosmopolitan. I told my mom, ‘I think I hear English here more than I do in LA.’”

Giving back

As she finishes her second year of Cornell Law School, Delgado mentors Californian law students in her spare time, offering guidance regarding the absolute necessity of a warm winter coat and where to find cheap plane tickets home, and connecting them to networking groups she, as the founder of the California Law Student Association at Cornell, is working to create. When she’s not at the Law School or in her apartment, and when she’s not mentoring, she’s at Wegmans, nurturing her love of cooking.

When she graduates in 2014, Delgado will join Bingham McCutchen in Los Angeles where she hopes to practice immigration law, but that doesn’t mean she won’t still dream of doing more. Civil rights law beckons her. And, one day, like her legal role model, Chief Justice Earl Warren, she hopes to interpret the law.

“She is going to have a huge impact on society one day,” her former high school teacher says. “She has a brilliant mind, a kind heart, and a determined spirit.”

And, she’s not afraid to dream.