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From refugee to student success advocate

Leslie Cepeda’s life experiences have shaped her student-centered approach to advising and mentoring.

This story was originally published on the Career & Professional Development Center’s blog, Peaks & Valleys.

My journey through higher education as an undergraduate and graduate student as well as my time working in Student Affairs and now as a student success advocate (SSA), was not the smoothest path. As a student I faced many obstacles including learning a new language and navigating an unfamiliar education system. By overcoming these challenges, I became the person I am today and my experiences shaped my student-centered approach to advising and mentoring. I focus on being culturally responsive to the stories and strengths that each student brings to the University of Utah. To help validate other students’ experiences, I’m sharing my story.


I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, where I lived with my mother and grandma. My mother worked as a journalist covering issues like corruption and organized crime which led her to receive serious death threats and seek asylum in the United States. I was 14 years old at the time and I had stayed with my grandmother in Colombia for three years before joining my mother in Utah with limited English that I had learned in Colombia. I attended East High for 12th grade and met amazing people who helped me enhance my English skills. As I acclimated to high school in Utah, I decided to apply to the University of Utah and pursue a career as a pediatrician. When I shared my goals with my high school counselor they told me not to apply, to practice my English and then maybe go to college. My counselor’s advice was based on assumptions about my background and language skills. Rather than let her opinion change my goals, I sought additional advice and met with a college access advisor. They helped me through the application process, told me the information I needed and saw my identities as strengths. I graduated with honors from high school and went to the U. It was not easy but my immigration journey truly inspired me to want to support people who share similar experiences.

As an undergraduate, I was very engaged in campus activities and studied anthropology with a health emphasis. Like many students also on the pre-med path, I did everything that a pre-med student “should do.” I took the right classes, shadowed physicians, got research experience, leadership and community engagement. In my last year as graduation got closer, I began to reflect on my experiences and realized that the activities I enjoyed the most were related to mentoring and advising. I started working with the SSAs and they supported me as I navigated other careers and considered my options for what to do after graduation. They listened, connected me with campus resources and validated my decision to take a break and pursue a different path.

I graduated from the U and instead of applying for med school, I became a college access advisor. In this role, I worked with high school students with similar identities as myself who come from low-income, first-generation and underrepresented backgrounds to have college access. This work solidified my passion for supporting students as they navigate their college goals. I returned to the U as a graduate student and earned my M.Ed. in Educational Leadership & Policy with an emphasis in student affairs.

Now as student success advocate, I appreciate the ability to meet each student where they are. Every day I work with students in defining and achieving their personal version of “success” at the U. I enjoy connecting students with high-impact activities, talking about their career goals and major interests and working to accomplish their dreams. I continue to advocate for students from diverse backgrounds and across different stages in their educational journey.

Whether you are a first-year student, transfer student or non-traditional student, SSAs support all undergraduates through their journeys to graduation. Check out the SSAs. We would love to connect with you. We can text, FaceTime, call, Zoom and/or meet in person, whatever is best for each student.