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ECU student's Colombian roots rich and bold as coffee

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As Latino Youth in Action and Community Programs Coordinator for the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN), Katherinn Rojas coordinated last week's Latino Celebration event at Wellcome Middle School. Rojas was born in Connecticut and raised in Gastonia. Her parents are from Colombia.

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Relector

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, but for ECU student Katherinn Rojas every day is a celebration of her Colombian roots.

Rojas, 22, a senior majoring in public health and community health, was born in Connecticut and raised in Gastonia, but her eyes brighten when she speaks of her love for her parents’ native Medellin, Colombia, claiming it as her second home. Her parents have since become naturalized U.S. citizens and her father works as a ticket agent at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Trips to Colombia are pretty much an annual event for the family.

“I love it so much there; it’s such a beautiful place and such a different environment than my home here,” Rojas said. “I’ve gone there almost every year to visit family. The city is in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains. I especially like to visit the downtown area, known as “El Centro,” a busy marketplace and commerce center. Everything is a lot cheaper to buy there.”

In addition to her community health projects, like the health and nutrition presentation she gave this week at the Boys & Girls Club in tandem with the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Pitt County office, Rojas also interns as Latin Youth in Action and Community Programs Coordinator with the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN). She coordinated last week’s Latino Festival at the Greenville Town Common.

“I’ve developed a workshop for exercises kids can do at home with minimal equipment, and I’ve arranged for a boxer with the Title Boxing Club to demonstrate the fitness benefits that boxing movements provide,” Rojas said. “I’m also coordinating a mental health workshop with ECU researcher David Harrelson.”

Rojas is an only child and is extremely close with her parents. She inherited her love for her Latino heritage from them and has embraced her South American roots. 

“My Latino heritage is who I am,” she said. “Many people from other countries and cultures forget their roots when they come to America. They want to be Americanized. Not me, though. My parents raised me to know the value of my heritage and never forget it. I love it so much that I taught myself to read and write Spanish when I was young. Even if I marry someone who is not Latino, I will not lose my heritage. I love to represent my people and educate non-Hispanic people about the differences between Colombian culture and other Hispanic nations.”

Rojas understands that many people’s sole knowledge of Colombia comes from media exposure to Medellin drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

“It’s sad because his name is the first thing Americans say when you mention Colombia, and there is so much more than that to the country,” she said. “Coffee is much more important to Colombia’s economy and its people. We’re very proud of our coffee. Our food is wonderful, too.”

Rojas’ parents always pushed her to get an education, she said. She became impressed with ECU while in high school,  when she visited a friend who was enrolled at the university.

“I loved the campus and the Greenville environment, and my parents loved it here as well,” she said. 

When her hopes for nursing school fell short, Rojas turned her attention to another health-related field.

“I saw that public health fit well for me, so I focused on that, with a concentration on community health,” she said. “Ever since I changed my direction I’ve really loved my courses. My internship with AMEXCAN has opened a lot of doors as well.”

On a personal level, Rojas wants to use her talents and education to dispel negative impressions that exist about Latino people’s role in the American landscape and fabric.

“The prejudice and discrimination that exist, particularly at this time is saddening to me, but nobody is perfect in this world either, so there will always be ups and downs,” she said. “We all need to unite and work together for a better future, otherwise we’re all going backwards together.

“I don’t want America to return to segregation,” Rojas said. “We should be the role model for the world and show that people who are different can all get along.” 

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.