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Outstanding criminal justice grad makes most of opportunities

Katherine Chavez Chavarria and her guide dog Olivia
June 26, 2014

Katherine Chavez Chavarria has vision. She just can’t see. She lost her eyesight at the age of six as the result of a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. But Chavez Chavarria never lost sight of what she wants to accomplish in life. She wants to be a lawyer and help those most in need.

She is one step closer to her goal. In May, Chavez Chavarria graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Public Program’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She was named her school’s outstanding graduate for the spring 2014 semester.

It wasn’t easy. The last year was extremely difficult because her father was battling throat cancer. His voice box was removed in September. A blind daughter. A mute father. The only way they could communicate was through text messages.

“It was that much more difficult and heartbreaking for me because I can’t see him and I can’t hear him,” says Chavez Chavarria, who lived at Taylor Place, the downtown campus dorm. “It was hard being away and every time the phone rings, being tentative of who’s calling and who’s texting me.” 

Then, two weeks before graduation, her father died. Finals had just begun.

“I knew I needed to finish, not just for myself, but for my dad,” Chavez Chavarria says. “My parents, they both have been encouraging. And I know my dad would have wanted me to finish. He wouldn’t want me to be depressed and drop out.”

Chavez Chavarria credits her family, friends and faith for getting her through.

“It was very hard going through all of this my senior year, but God has definitely given me supernatural strength because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without God.”

“This girl is unstoppable,” says Karla Arias, who was Chavez Chavarria’s academic adviser. “She was very committed to her schooling and to getting the best experience from college that she could have earned.”

That meant getting involved in activities on the downtown campus, where she rarely missed a school event. She also started a student organization to help students develop and strengthen their faith.

“She has also been very, very involved with our school, very involved with our college,” says Arias. “And she was also president of an organization at our downtown campus – Awake Ministry. She’s just amazing.”

Here was a blind woman who was unafraid to try new things and seek out new opportunities. That impressed Bob Robson, a professor of practice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“She wanted to experience everything that she could possibly experience,” says Robson, “and that was quite evident in her travels, but obviously in her educational pursuits.“

Robson got to know Chavez Chavarria in class and through their conversations outside the classroom. He wishes more students had her moxie.

“She took every opportunity that was made available to her,” Robson says. “If you have plans on going anywhere in life and you have opportunities that are around you, then you should take them. That’s how career opportunities come about.”

But, what most people didn’t know about Chavez Chavarria is that it took her twice as long to do the same class work as students who could see. But she never complained, never used it as an excuse. What really amazed Arias were all the other things that she could do. Such as living in London as part of a study abroad program, or being a member of her high school cheerleading squad. That surprised her initially.

“Because she was a petite girl, she was the one who did the flips,” Arias says. “Everything was by counting. She relied on her friends a lot."

She still relies on friends. But for the past five years, Chavez Chavarria has relied on a black Labrador named Olivia. For graduation, she dressed up her guide dog in a maroon cap and gown. Olivia walked beside Chavez Chavarria, who helped carry her school’s flag, or gonfalon, on stage at the beginning of the College of Public Programs Convocation held at Wells Fargo Arena. Chavez Chavarria sat in the first row. Olivia lay faithfully in front of her feet.

Chavez Chavarria isn’t your typical outstanding graduate. She doesn’t have a 4.0 GPA. It’s a tad under 3.0. It was higher, but dropped for a number of reasons, including dealing with her father’s struggle with cancer. Then there was studying for the LSAT, the exam needed to get into law school. She did her best to balance her studies while preparing for her future.

“Her goal after graduation is to become a lawyer,” says Arias. “She has her plan. She has her goal. She already did the LSAT and has applied to a couple Ivy League schools.”

Since the 8th grade, Chavez Chavarria says she’s wanted to help those who have nobody to turn to. She’s not sure how that will materialize after law school, but thinks she may start off working with juveniles.

“I just want to make a difference,” Chavez Chavarria says. “I really want to have an impact and make a difference on the whole community.”

Her college adviser is confident she’ll achieve that.

“She’s very passionate, she’s very caring for other people,” Arias says. "Her goal is to help those people who are in need of a lawyer. That’s what she wants to do.”

For now, Chavez Chavarria plans to take a break from school and help her family following the death of her father.