Young Latina professional pays it forward for the next generation

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WASHINGTON (WFXR) — For Karen Vanegas, this time of year is a chance to reflect on how far she’s come.

“Hispanic Heritage Month, today, as I look out on the Capitol, means so much.”

Four years ago, she was a college student on DACA status, a status that took a lot of time, money, and energy to maintain and to advance professionally.

“I know that I am changing so much for my family with every step that I take, and in consequence, I’m also changing the lives of my children, my grandchildren, and generations to come.”

The Colombia native grew up in the DC area since she was six and is now a permanent resident.

For her, success is about more than her own personal achievements.

It’s about her family and her fellow Hispanics.

“If we’re here, we’re here for a reason,” she said. “We’re here because parents pushed through. We’re here because grandparents pushed through, and so we need to continue doing that. Who are we to stop pushing through?”

She now works at the International Monetary Fund, but four years ago, her career started with an internship at the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

“When I was doing it, I was doing it with so much enthusiasm, but I didn’t really know what it was going to mean for me. So I’m definitely very thankful, not just what I learned from it, but the relationships that I made.”

Her gratitude is what drives her to pay it forward.

“I continue to be involved with him and with HHF, because I received much and I probably will continue to receive much from him and from the foundation, and so I know just as well that I need to give back and to provide the same opportunities that I was given.”

It’s an attitude that helps the Hispanic Heritage Foundation continue their mission.

“She’s a very good friend,” said Antonio Tijerino, President & CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. “We count on her. She can say whatever she wants about her counting on us, we count on her more.”

“When I have somebody that needs guidance in terms of the career path that Karen has followed, I have them contact her.”

President Reagan established the Hispanic Heritage Foundation when he expanded Hispanic Heritage Week to a month with an annual awards ceremony recognizing prominent Hispanic-Americans.

That was the organization’s main focus until about 18 years ago.

“Since then, we have focused on youth,” said Tijerino. “We have focused on education, workforce development, leadership, and culture. Those programs are teaching 100,000 kids how to code all over the country. We’re doing leadership programs specifically for DACA recipients, or specifically for Latinas.”

That builds a vast network of people who crossed paths with the foundation and go on to help the next generation.

“We’re able to place them in jobs with fortune 500 companies,” said Tijerino, “and we’ve been able to do that over the last 18 years, which I’m very proud of. I love what we do at the Kennedy Center, but we are making a huge impact around the country outside the Kennedy Center, year-round, in our communities.”

More than anything, Vanegas values the bonds she’s made through the organization.

“That is so important to have as a young adult who is figuring her professional life out,” she said, “to have people that she can look up to, people that she can talk to.”

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