SIA student recognized with Spirit of Internationalization award

Claudia Prieto and Ayona Riley at the Spirit of Internationalization Award ceremony.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Before coming to the Penn State School of International Affairs, Ayona Riley served as a refugee and immigrant program assistant at The Advocates for Human Rights, working closely with refugees seeking new homes in the United States—many of them women fleeing gender-based violence and abuse in their home countries.

"I saw firsthand that we need to do better because women’s rights are human rights, and gender on its own is not a protected ground for asylum despite how many women around the world suffer from this kind of violence and abuse,” Riley said. “We need to affirm that these women’s experiences are real, and that all too often being a woman is a reason you have to flee your country.”

That experience inspired her to continue her education at SIA, where she has focused her education on Latin American politics and U.S. immigration policy, with a focus on gender in her research and professional goals. For her tireless dedication to improving the lives of women around the world, Riley has been recognized as the recipient of Global Connections’ 2017 Spirit of Internationalization Award in the category of “Inspiring Bold Women.”

Global Connections, a community-based, nonprofit organization affiliated with Penn State and the United Way of Centre County, awards this distinction each year to “inspiring, bold women” at Penn State who “have made remarkable contributions to the advancement of women,” making the Spirit of Internationalization Award is a prestigious honor—and for Riley, an overwhelming and emotional validation of her work.

“When I read what [SIA academic adviser] Claudia Prieto wrote, I honestly cried; it was so kind and touching,” Riley said. “I told her that I don’t care whether or not I win, that even to be nominated means so much.”

In her nomination letter, Prieto praises Riley’s gender-focused human rights research with SIA professor Tiyanjana Maluwa, her professional work in immigration and refugee advocacy, and her commitment to continuing to pursue human rights and women’s rights advocacy work after graduation—as well as her “passion and commitment to help others” and “astute academic and research skills.”

In her acceptance at the Global Connections award ceremony, held in the State College Borough Municipal Building on International Women’s Day on March 16, Riley thanked Prieto for her nomination and Global Connections for their recognition, and affirmed that she will continue to work to benefit underprivileged women and create a more inclusive environment for Latin Americans in the United States.

“Upon graduation in May, I plan to go forward and push back against this presumption that America is the United States,” Riley said as she concluded her speech. “The United States is one part of a larger continent that is filled with Americans, with women, who should have their dignities reaffirmed, not blocked by a wall. “

This marks the second year that an SIA student was selected as the recipient of the Spirit of Internationalization Award. Daniela Robledo Vallejos, then a second-year student, was selected to receive the award last year for her professional and academic commitment to improving the lives of Latin American women and girls.