Meeting with Sylvia Vazquez-Lavada, a 1996 graduate of Millersville and a mountaineer who wrote memoirs in the film | Entertainment
Sylvia Vazquez-Lavada has climbed mountains all her life, both real and symbolic.
Her journey from a young girl in Lima, Peru, to a world-renowned climber, writer and teacher has been challenging.
When she was a child, she was sexually abused. The grief of that traumatic event remained with her for a long time in old age. She was looking for an escape, and education was her first outing.
Vazquez-Lavada studied at the University of Millersville in the 1990s, and was recently invited back to campus as a speaker at the May 9, 2022 graduation ceremony.
The school she attended was chosen by her mother solely for aesthetics; The University of Millersville campus looked most beautiful, Vazquez-Lavada says. She has received a full scholarship that will apply to many schools in the United States while she is studying STEM education.
The first time she traveled to the United States was in Millersville in 1992. She watched shows like “90210” and “The Cosby Show” to give her an idea of what America looks like.
“It was a culture shock when I first landed because my idea of the United States was that everything would be a huge city,” Vazquez-Lavada says.
Vazquez-Lavada, who graduated in 1996, originally intended to pursue a major in molecular biology, but it proved to be a challenging major, so she moved into business, she says.
Almost 30 years later, she is now the published author of the memoirs “In the Shadow of the Mountain”, which are now in preparation. Selena Gomez is to play Vazquez-Lavado; release date not set.
But even with Hollywood behind it, Vazquez says the biggest recognition was the recognition of Speaker Millersville.
“This is the greatest honor of my life,” Vazquez-Lavada said in an interview before the ceremony.
Time in Millersville
Vazquez-Lavada was a busy student, but she had a slight tendency to study – she did not know English.
It was also difficult for her to pack up and leave everything she knew in Peru. However, during her visit to Millersville she had a very good host family.
“(Millersville) felt comfortable,” says Vazquez-Lavada. “I was very surprised by the number of international students.”
All of these factors made the awkward situation a little more comfortable, and she was able to come to her senses while continuing to study at Millersville. She joined the WIXQ campus radio station with two other international students, and they were able to bring music from their culture to children listening to on campus through a show called “World Beat”.
Like most other students, even current ones, she enjoyed the wings at Jack’s Tavern and Stromboli’s at Sugar Bowl. Although she did not step on campus after graduating from school, except to deliver this year’s speech, she warmly recalled her experience at school.
“Coming back, I think it comes to me,‘ Wow, this building is still here, there are swans, Sugarcane! ’” She says with a laugh. Some things have changed, but many have remained the same.
However, one of the most influential things that happened during the Vazquez-Lavado period in Millersville was her fascination with the Internet. It was new to her and she says she was delighted with his powerful connection. It opened up the world to her and she was able to meet many people and learn more than she knew before.
Eventually, after graduating from school, she climbed another mountain – getting a job in San Francisco. For many years she made her way up the corporate ladder and also received a visa to become a permanent citizen of the United States.
She says her education at the University of Millersville has led to confidence in herself and her degree.
“The need to overcome learning a new language, feeling the support of the community, gave me the strength to just try (things),” says Vazquez-Lavada.
But despite the way she tried to move away from her past, it crept back.
A mountain of memoirs
Vazquez-Lavada says she has reached a point where she has failed to cope with the trauma of sexual violence that led her to alcoholism.
“I tried to overtake my past and my shame,” says Vazquez-Lavada. “I felt that if I had a great job, I continued to climb the corporate ladder and have a title, it would erase attempts to face this part of my past.”
She called her mother and asked for help; her mom told her to visit Peru and get away from the noise for a while. She agreed.
While in Peru, Vazquez-Lavada took part in a healing ritual where she used ayahuasca, a mixture of vines and plants that produce a psychoactive effect. In the US, this drug is a legal gray area; its active ingredient, DMT, is considered a List I drug, but in recent years legal retreats under religious protection have opened in the United States.
It is commonly used in South America because of its healing properties, and many report that after its application they have spiritual visions.
In the vision of Vazquez-Lavado she saw an adult version of herself and a small version of herself walking together through the valley through the mountains.
After the ritual, Vazquez-Lavada says she took the vision seriously and decided to meet the call of the mountains.
Her first initiative was Everest. Vazquez-Lavada and her hiking group reached the foot of the mountain before turning back due to a health problem with the guide. After that experience, however, she says she felt refreshed and wanted more. Vazquez-Lavada set out to complete seven peaks or hike to the top of the highest mountain of each continent.
In 2005, she conquered Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which was her first challenge in seven peaks.
Vazquez-Lavada became the first open lesbian to complete seven summits. But that was never the goal – in fact, she says she’s surprised someone else didn’t do it first.
Throughout all her hikes her inspiration was less dependent on being first in anything: it was to continue to communicate with the little girl she saw in her vision.
“I knew I was doing it for myself and for a relationship with my little girl,” Vazquez-Lavada says.
But it didn’t make sense to share that inspiration.
“This connection, climbing as a survivor, was very personal, so I kept quiet,” she says.
It wasn’t until she got into a motorcycle accident that she realized she needed to tell her story. While Vazquez-Lavada was in the hospital to be examined for injuries, they discovered a tumor at the base of her brain. Doctors were not sure it was cancer, although Vazquez-Lavada was worried because her mother died of cancer shortly before the accident.
She recalls thinking, “When it’s my time to go, I’m grateful. I had a damn life. ”
Fortunately, the tumor was benign, but it took her more than a year to recover from the injuries. She decided it was time to tell her story, so she wrote a memoir called “In the Shadow of the Mountain,” a crude depiction of trauma and triumph.
The memoirs have been adapted for the film, and Gomez will star. She was in Peru when she got the news and she says she couldn’t be happier working with Gomez.
“The fact that she is so vulnerable and open, I think it’s a dream,” says Vazquez-Lavada. “It is an honor for me. I am grateful that she showed interest. “
Currently, Vazquez-Lavado’s life is quite busy: she is working on a film, working on other media projects, working with her non-profit organization Courageous Girls, which helps girls in other countries who have been sexually abused. There are also one-time engagements, such as the start ceremony in Millersville.
But she says none of this would have been possible without her education at the University of Millersville. It gave her a sense of community and hope, as well as a fresh start, she says.
“Millersville from the beginning was my first understanding of what it means to be part of a community, my home outside the only home I knew,” Vazquez-Lavada said in his introductory speech.
She encouraged students to find out who they are, love those around them, and never be afraid to start all over again, even if the road ahead seems difficult.
“Everyone who graduated today must understand the meaning of common humanity,” says Vazquez-Lavada. “Applying this understanding and connecting with others will make you reach any inner or outer mountain that you have.”