Andrea Avina’s accomplishments during her years at Chico State speak volumes—but they tell only part of her story.
She boasts a 3.6 grade point average—including 3.9 in the challenging major of communication sciences and disorders. She’s volunteered hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on and off campus. And she was accepted into Chico State’s competitive communication sciences and disorders graduate program, which she’ll start this fall.
“She stands strong on her academic accomplishments and accolades alone,” said Erica Flores, the college’s director of development, who helped select Avina for a College award recognizing outstanding seniors. “You add the backstory to it, it’s almost unreal.”
A first-generation student, Avina never envisioned this future for herself while she grew up in Knights Landing, a tiny rural community of predominantly Mexican farm-working families in Yolo County. She didn’t think she’d live long enough to set foot on a college campus.
But, as a member of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) in high school, Avina received a wealth of support, guidance, and motivation from her teacher, attending college field trips, and getting an idea of the possibilities higher education could hold.
She envisioned working somewhere in the medical field, since her mother was a medical assistant, and entered college as a pre-nursing major. When an on-the-job back injury in 2014 forced Avina to consider changing majors, her advisor dug a little deeper.
Tapping into Avina’s deep well of patience, curiosity, and compassion, the advisor suggested a switch to speech therapy. Add the fact that Avina is bilingual, and it was a perfect fit. She could still help others, starting with those closest to her.
During Avina’s senior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with oral cancer and underwent speech therapy as a result, adding yet another challenge to a family experiencing speech setbacks. Her stepfather is deaf in one ear and has partial hearing in the other ear. Meanwhile, her grandfather had suffered a stroke years before. One of her cousins has autism. Another cousin stutters. It was starting to take shape. Avina found her calling.
“I didn’t know there was a major that could help with the things I was seeing [at home],” she said. “Everything connects.”
Her educational path was set, even if the road leading there had been fraught with abuse, pain, and fear.
Avina’s biological father was abusive, starving her and mentally abusing her throughout her early childhood. She also saw him try to drown her mother in a bathtub at age five. Fear ruled her youth.
“I always felt like I didn’t have a voice,” she said.
At age six, her family escaped in the middle of the night, and neighbors graciously opened their homes to help.
The ensuing years were difficult in their own way. Custody battles played out in the courts, law enforcement rescued Avina during a visit with her father, and her mother eventually remarried.
“I was very hesitant to accept [my stepfather] because I didn’t want him to turn out like the last,” she said. “Eventually, I saw that he was an incredible person.”
At Chico State, Avina found her stride within communication sciences and disorders. Then as a sophomore, she learned her roommates were involved with drug dealers. This hostile environment was nearly her undoing, when safety issues escalated to the point where she was nearly struck in a drive-by shooting. To remove herself from that environment, Avina moved out in 2014 and lived out of her car for a while.
Later that year, doctors discovered a lump on her breast and thought it might be cancerous.
Even after a clean diagnosis, things were beginning to pile up again: challenging family dynamics, her personal health and safety, the health of those closest to her, school. Avina said she didn’t know how to ask for help for something so overwhelming. Until one day, during a doctor’s visit, she succumbed, broke down, and cried uncontrollably.
“I’m a pretty independent person and have always liked to keep to myself,” she said. “But this time, I was empty and numb inside.”
Avina had hit her breaking point.
“I wanted to drop out of school and was diagnosed with PTSD. I could not eat, sleep, or think. My grades were failing and I didn’t want to worry my parents,” she said.
Later that year, she attempted suicide. She sought and received help from Laurie Evans from Student Health Services and also took time for intentional prayer.
With the help she needed, Avina refocused with her vision trained squarely on the end result of helping her family. She persevered and excelled academically, giving what little free time she had to organizations like the University’s Autism Clinic, the Special Olympics, and Up ’til Dawn. Additionally, she has been a conversational partner for the American Language and Culture Institute, worked as an academic advisor, and currently serves as president of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association.
“I know I’ve had it hard, but I know other people can have it much harder,” said Avina. “That’s why I give back so much to the community.”
In recognition of her outstanding accomplishments and service, Avina earned the College of Communication and Education Outstanding Student Leader Award. She also won the University-wide Chico State Outstanding Student Leader Award.
Through it all, Avina maintained her focus: Graduate from college, help family, give back. And she’s quick to credit her inspiration.
“I know everyone says, ‘My mom is my superhero,’ but she really is,” she said. “She’s been the mom and the father figure. She has her own medical problems, and to see her keep this family together is huge. She wants a better future for us.”
This fall, Avina will continue working toward that better future her mother wished for her only daughter and oldest of four children—working toward her master’s degree at Chico State. Her goal is to someday work as a speech pathologist in or near her hometown.
Avina still admits, however, that she has one more challenge to overcome.
“I have a fear of public speaking,” she said. “But I’m working on that.”
Odds are, she’ll find her voice.