By Julia Duvall
When Estefany Gordillo-Rivas, a senior at Western Carolina University double majoring in cultural anthropology and political science, was deciding where she wanted to go to college, she knew she wanted to go somewhere that would give her a more personal experience with smaller class sizes.
“I lived 15 minutes from the University of Tennessee and I just didn’t feel like going to a university of that size was the right fit for me,” Gordillo-Rivas said. “I participated in band all four years of high school and one of the tournaments we went to was the Tournament of Champions at WCU. After spending the entire day on campus, I fell in love with WCU and knew this was where I belonged.”
Gordillo-Rivas initially wanted to audition for the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, but since she was coming to WCU in fall 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced those plans to change.
“After the pandemic changed my plans of joining the band, I was going to wait a year to come to WCU, but I had already applied and been accepted and at the same time, I was also accepted in the Freshman Leadership Initiative,” she said. “I started classes and that first year I learned all about leadership. An opportunity to apply for an executive board position in WCU’s Student Government Association became available a few months later and I decided to try something new and apply.”
Gordillo-Rivas served in an executive cabinet role for one year before running for SGA president. She credits this experience as fueling her passion for student leadership, advocacy and higher education.
“It's really changed my whole career trajectory from just being involved and taking a chance at trying something new to running and being elected as SGA president, to now being involved with the UNC Board of Governors.”
Gordillo-Rivas originally came to WCU wanting to study forensics and be a crime lab technician, but the more she got involved in student leadership and the higher education realm, she realized she wanted to make an impact in the lives of students seeking a college degree.
“I saw how much WCU faculty and staff care about students and making college accessible,” she said. “I decided I wanted to be part of that advocacy and make an impact.”
Through her time as SGA president and serving on WCU’s Board of Trustees, Gordillo-Rivas was able to interact with various viewpoints, backgrounds and cultures.
“People elected to these positions, whether in a student or trustee capacity, are seeking a common goal of a positive trajectory for higher education,” Gordillo-Rivas said. “While our opinions and ideals may vary, at the end of the day, we are all working toward the same thing – advocating for WCU and the lives our university impacts.”
Gordillo-Rivas now serves as president of the University of North Carolina Association of Student Governments. ASG is a student-led organization committed to furthering educational opportunities and advocating for the nearly 250,000 students in the UNC System.
In her role as ASG president, Gordillo-Rivas also serves as the student representative on the UNC Board of Governors.
Gordillo-Rivas shared the impact Sam Miller, WCU’s vice chancellor for student affairs and Betsy Aspinwall, associate vice chancellor and dean of students, have had on her higher education journey.
“Dr. Miller has been absolutely fantastic and so supportive, not just in my SGA role, but in my overall experience as a student,” she said. “Dr. Aspinwall has been one of our advisers for SGA and she is amazing and such an advocate for us.”
“Estefany is a brilliant and gifted leader who balances her roles well and understands the importance of listening and civility in advocacy,” Aspinwall said. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to watch her emerge as a strong, Hispanic, female leader. She is caring, fun to work with and truly wants what is best for her fellow Catamounts. If you haven’t spent time with Estefany, you’re missing out.”
Asked what her advice would be to future or current WCU students, Gordillo-Rivas shared that her biggest takeaway was to put yourself out there and take chances.
“I know if I didn't take that chance and didn’t try something new, I wouldn't be in the position I am now,” she said. “Step out of your comfort zone and expand your circle of friends, this is something that I have really taken to heart in the past couple of years.”