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Creating the Change

Recent alumna begins her pursuit of justice for refugees

Melissa Tovar posing on campus

Melissa Tovar, bcj '20. Photo by Doug Stremel

From The Ichabod - Spring 2022
By Brooke Donaldson

Melissa Tovar, bcj ’20, is no stranger to the hardships of being a minority. When she started her journey at Washburn University, she was ready to create the change she wanted to see in her community.

“My desire to study criminal justice had a lot to do with the inequity I saw growing up in a low-income family,” Tovar said. “The majority of interaction with law enforcement was negative, and I was ready to make a change.”

During her years at North High School in Wichita, Kansas, Tovar worked hard to best prepare herself for the future, despite those who doubted her. Her mother encouraged her to take college readiness classes, and it was through these programs that Tovar’s name was submitted to Michelle Obama’s Beating the Odds Summit in 2016.

The summer before her freshman year of college, Tovar flew to Washington, D.C., to attend this event and met Michelle and Barack Obama.

“It was an amazing experience,” Tovar said. “I was able to prove to myself and the people around me that I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to.”

Along with attending the summit, Tovar received a full-ride scholarship to the college of her choice. It was the first time anyone from her high school had received such a scholarship.

Tovar worked hard to create a space of inclusion for herself and those around her when she came to Washburn; she helped bring the associate chapter 
of Sigma Lambda Gamma, a Latina sorority, to campus, worked with the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion and was part of the We Are First program, student government, Hispanic American Leadership Organization and the Kansas Women’s Leadership Institute at the University of Kansas.

“I wanted to make this a place where my siblings could come and feel like they belong,” she said.

The oldest of six, Tovar continued to put her siblings first even as a college student. During her sophomore year at Washburn, Tovar’s mother was picked up by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and detained at an unknown location. She faced leaving school to try to find her mother and take care of her younger siblings.

“This was a devastating decision for Melissa, as she was very passionate about her education and earning her degree,” said Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, jd ’92, director, Office of University Diversity and Inclusion at Washburn. “I met her during these trying circumstances and worked with her to put a plan in place that took care of her siblings, found the right immigration attorneys for her mother and kept her in school.”

Tovar currently works at the Office of Refugee Resettlement at The Villages in Topeka. Part of her job includes case management, where she evaluates situations in which family members of children separated at the border are seeking to be reunified. She works directly with these children when they arrive at The Villages and sees their cases through to the reunification process.

“When these children first come here, they do not have the mentality of a child; they are worried about money, food, family and other issues that children should not have to be dealing with,” Tovar said. “This being said, one of my favorite parts of this job is letting them have the opportunity to just be kids, without worrying about the future.”

Having always had a special place in her heart for children, Tovar enjoys every aspect of this job and aims to continue working with kids in the future.

“The staff here never fail to treat the children with dignity, respect and kindness, and seeing the effect it has on them daily is amazing,” she said.

Tovar plans to return to Washburn and attend the School of Law with the ultimate goal of working in immigration law for refugees.

“I want to continue to work for the Office of Refugee Resettlement and become an advocate for those who are afraid and in need of help, especially children,” Tovar said. “I want to help my people.”

Dempsey-Swopes and Tovar continue to stay in touch and have discussions about her plans to attend Washburn Law.

“Melissa is simply brilliant,” Dempsey-Swopes said. “We had many conversations during her time here as well as after graduation about her pursuing a law degree, and I know without a doubt she would make an excellent immigration lawyer.”

Tovar is striving to make a difference in the world today, and she hopes to see many more Latina women in roles and occupations who hold power.

“She is passionate, driven and has a clear idea of what her goals are,” Dempsey-Swopes said. “It has been an honor to work with Melissa and I could not be more excited to continue to watch her grow.”

Tovar looks forward to furthering her career with Washburn Law and growing in her current role at the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“At the end of the day, these are just kids, and they deserve the world,” Tovar said.

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483