Leading Fearlessly: Following your dreams – and advice for teens – with Iowa transplant Yerliana Reyna
Editor’s note: As part of our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Fearless profiled a Latina who moved to Iowa from New York to work as a counselor at the Urbandale Community School District. She is empowering the next generation of fearless leaders. (We recognize that calling September “Hispanic Heritage Month” is imperfect, and we always welcome your feedback.)
– Nicole Grundmeier
“I’m a believer that you can reach whatever you want in life as long as you work for it,” says Yerliana Reyna, a professional school counselor for Urbandale Middle School and an Iowa transplant. The first member of her family to complete a college degree, own her own house and business, Reyna embodies the spirit of fearlessness. She comments, “I’m the first in a lot of things and I want other people to be able to use my example as a motivation to accomplish their goals.”
Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Reyna moved at age 15 to the Bronx, where she finished high school and completed both her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in school counseling with a certification in bilingual school counseling. After moving to Iowa in 2020, Reyna has quickly become part of the Central Iowa community. She participated in the recent Iowa Latinx Project’s Media Ambassador Program, and I subsequently reached out to ask her some questions about her journey and her work with teens.
How did you end up in Iowa?
I have a very adventurous personality, or what we refer to in New York as a “Go get it” attitude. The story of how I ended up in Iowa is a reflection of that. It was during July 2020 that my husband, my toddler, my newborn and I drove from the Bronx to Iowa to visit my husband’s cousin and her family, who were already established in Iowa. It was our second visit to West Des Moines, and from the first visit, Iowa felt like home. We liked being able to drive with minimum traffic, no one honking at you the very minute the red light turns green, and the fresh air, but I think it was the “Iowa nice” that helped put all the pieces together.
This visit was supposed to be a refresher from all the things pandemic. My son and my husband went to a nearby park. It was a very hot Monday. On their way back, my son ran to me, all sweaty and with a big smile, and said, “Mami, I love this! I want this!” My husband and I were very happy to hear him express himself in such an exciting way. My husband then said, “You imagine, well … one day, maybe when I retire?” I asked him, why then and not now? Why imagine a future when we can make it happen? Well, I made it my mission. I started looking for jobs within my field, and on that Tuesday, I submitted an application. The next day I got a call for an interview. That Thursday, we drove back to New York, and on Friday, I had my interview over Zoom.
I moved with my two kids, and my mom came along, just to help with the kids for a few months, but she ended up staying with us. My husband was staying in New York for a few months longer in order for us to make the transition a successful one. During that time, he used to travel once or sometimes twice a month for a few days to see the kids.
Honestly speaking, it was a lot. However, I would not change a thing. To me, Iowa is where my heart is at peace with the little girl inside me, where I get to see my kids have a similar childhood that I once had, where I belong. Iowa is my home away from home.
You mention several “firsts.” How did you overcome fears to accomplish some of these things where you did not have a role model in your own family?
There are so many things I can think of when it comes to overcoming fears. I reflect on my transition from the East Coast to the Midwest. I asked myself why it took me so long to make one of the best decisions of my life. Overcoming fear has not been easy for me. It has taken a lot of work, determination, staying focused and protecting my “why” at all costs in a very respectful and caring way. During complicated times my why is always the vehicle that takes me places. My why took me to my happy place, the place that I now call home. It’s OK to feel fear. Fear is just a stopping point for you to revisit your why. Why are you doing what you are doing, whether it is to go back to school, follow your role model’s footsteps or break barriers? Because there was no one else before you that did it for you and you know that you deserve better.
Acceptance is a key component when identifying your fear. Since a young age, I accepted my reality and I was determined to make the best out of it. I was raised by a single mother with the help of her parents because they took care of me while my mom worked. The way I see a role model nowadays is very unique. I have a village as a role model, and it took me years to understand that. Accepting that I had a village instead of just one person to look for has given me a clear direction of who I am today. Identify who is a part of your village and if you are having difficulties identifying those people, keep in mind it begins with you. You are the most essential member of your own village.
As a school counselor, you are dealing with young people – how do you motivate them to pursue their dreams and keep working to achieve their goals?
I believe in the power of communication. There is something in me that does the work for me, I like to talk a lot and that is it, I talk a lot and I keep things real whenever I interact with students. I firmly believe that when you identify your strengths you have achieved half of your goal. When working with young people, you need to realize that they are selective listeners, and if they don’t listen to what they want to hear, they tone it out. So whenever I have a conversation with my students about staying on track with assignments, attendance, validating feelings – whatever the topic might be, I give them multiple scenarios. When you invite young minds to think outside their own bubble, you are already empowering them.
Based on my observation of the last few years, some students don’t dream big, and if they do, they don’t have a plan on how to get there, they just want to get there. I talk a lot about small goals, one day at a time, having a plan, and if that plan doesn’t work, to follow all the letters of the alphabet. The generation that we are working with right now is very particular because they know they can just move to the next thing and be great at it, but it’s the moving part that is hard for them. Building that relationship with accepting things when they don’t work out is very important for our Gen Z friends.
What is most important for teenage girls to know or do to overcome obstacles?
Know your worth. Accept your uniqueness and be authentic. Do not put too much energy or time just to be accepted by people who are not going to move one finger to fill your cup. Everything comes at the right time, so try not to accelerate the process. Identify your strength and protect your why. Allow yourself to see things from a different perspective. When you do that, you have a better understanding of why things happen even when they don’t have the outcome that you were expecting. The rest is history that you will be writing as you break barriers and become the first member of your family to do the unthinkable as you make this world a better place.
What are some of your own goals now?
My main goal in life is to continue educating others, to be of support for people in order for them to reach their goals. These goals can be personal, professional or emotional. Most importantly, I want my children to have a role model in their lives. I want my children to know that their mami was able to accomplish all the things she wanted and more even though there were so many barriers on her path. I want my children to be understood, to be represented by leaders that understand their backgrounds and their uniqueness. I also want my mom to be able to see and appreciate that all her hard work was worth it. I want to keep going in so many ways for me, for my children, my family and for la cultura.