A glance at Vivian Nava-Schellinger’s resume will likely have you scratching your head. “I look back at opportunities that I took and others that I passed over, and, in the end, I always chose the road with the most forks,” she says.
Upon closer inspection, you may notice a few patterns: one, this proud Tejana, born and raised along the US-Mexico border in El Paso, has held Hispanic-Serving Institutions in high esteem throughout her education. She earned both her bachelor’s degree in political science and legal reasoning and her master’s in national security studies from the University of Texas at El Paso, then earned a Juris Doctorate from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU). She carried this value through her work in higher education, advocating for access to educational opportunities for underrepresented populations while directing admissions at ASU and at Howard University School of Law.
The second pattern that emerges is her commitment to empowering low-income and underserved communities. Her work, both in the private sector on large-scale-reimbursement patient-assistance programs for low-income adults and in her current role at the National Council on Aging, allows Nava-Schellinger to ensure all communities have access to the information they need to make informed decisions about their healthcare options. “Working at the National Council on Aging, each community partner is an honor to me,” she says. “Each connection builds the fabric of our mission. With one partnership, you can change the trajectory of a person, a family, an entire community.”
NextGen Collective recently caught up with Nava-Schellinger to get her insights, inspirations, and advice. Here’s what she shared.
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On Her Grandmother
“That ‘center space of gravity’ for my life’s direction is my grandmother, Angelina. Her gentle way, fierce work ethic, and tenacity to dream bigger than the circumstances society handed her inspires me every day. She provided for her family by cleaning houses, working in retail, and as a line cook at a senior center. I sometimes think, ‘My grandmother’s hands looked that way so that mine could look like this.’
As women, especially as Latinas, we often surprise ourselves with the ability we have to navigate our lives, despite so many factors that tell us we won’t [succeed]. At the age of sixty-five, my grandmother entered her first senior games. In the early 1990s she was inducted into the Texas Senior Olympic Hall of Fame with a record number of medals.
She is with me and inspires me every day to remember where I was planted, and to never waste what has been given to me.”
On What Success Looks Like
“I come from two high-achieving Latino parents. From a young age, getting an education, achieving, striving to be the best at whatever I did were all goals of mine. This has pushed me to recognize that my ambition is in the long game. I challenge myself to focus my success on the stories I will be able to tell as I age, not the achievements I can have in this moment. It is [about looking at the] compilation of points in the constellation of my life. I’m a marathon runner—it’s all about the long game.”
On Her Favorite Traits
“From my grandfathers (both WWII vets), I owe the joys that are often ignored among the immigrant experience. They taught me to make my joy as marketable as the challenges we encounter. They taught me to be deserving of joy. From my proud Tejano parents, I learned to be proud about where I came from, and never be ashamed to take up space in any room I walk into. From my littler sister, I learned to never stop until the job is done, no matter what it takes. And my husband’s support fuels my success.
“From my grandfathers, I owe the joys that are often ignored among the immigrant experience. They taught me to make my joy as marketable as the challenges we encounter. They taught me to be deserving of joy.”
My leadership style is about emphasizing purpose and not position. Everyone on a team can lead, but everyone is also different and may lead in a different way. As leaders we should be open to that, take the time to listen, nourish, cultivate, celebrate, and go the extra mile for those on our teams.
My mentoring style is that you can always count on me to be there, but my only requirement is that you pass it on.”
Her Advice for . . .
- “Advocate for other Latinas. When you recognize someone else’s need, you recognize their humanity. You become a resource for them, and you build your network of connections, information, and commitment to our community. You are made stronger in where you stand, what you believe in, and what you stand for. You learn from others, you take bits and pieces, and you feel empowered to advocate for yourself.”
- “Reach out as much as possible to [potential mentors] who come across your path. You will learn a new way to view the world, and find people who won’t tell you what you want to hear. The best mentorships of my career have come from sharing a cup of cafecito. Also, you have nothing to prove to a potential mentor. Tell them what you need. Be straightforward. They will appreciate it. They will support your shine.”
Latinx peers and mentees
- “Learn to leverage your cultural assets. Growing up in the neighborhood that you did, the food you ate, the transactions with the neighborhood elotero, attending public schools, riding public transportation, waiting for that special toy at the K-Mart layaway . . . these are life experiences that no one can become competent in. It’s your life experiences that will be your greatest assets in business, strategy, and important discussions in the future.”
- “Don’t take yourself too seriously. You will sometimes feel like you don’t belong in the spaces you will enter—but, a million times over, you belong there. Stand with your head high even when you fail, because your resiliency is everything you will ever need to get you through what may come.”
- “Work hard at learning the most you can from those you disagree with, more than from those you agree with.”
- “Remember you are your ancestors’ dream.”