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Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, Kiara Espinal ’21 has gone through her own metamorphosis at SUNY Potsdam, transitioning from an introverted first-year student, to a leader at the college.

“I used to be one of those quiet kids, I didn't say a lot as a child,” Espinal said. “I've always had that drive to want to speak up, and I finally found the space to do that when I came to college. The professors said, ‘You can do it, I'm going to support you no matter what.’”

“I really feel like SUNY Potsdam was the perfect place for me to challenge myself. It brought me close to being the person that I've always wanted to be.”

Now a senior at SUNY Potsdam, Espinal is wrapping up a double major in speech communication and graphic design—and has emerged as a confident public speaker. In her role as treasurer for the Student Government Association (SGA), she has been putting her communications skills to the test while overseeing Senate meetings with representatives from more than 50 clubs on campus. “I was very, very nervous at first, but now I feel like I truly can speak to anybody about anything; I've been running senate for almost three semesters now.”

As one of four women on the all-female executive board for the SGA, Espinal and the other elected members hold weekly Senate meetings, every Wednesday at 5 p.m., that give the entire student body a voice on campus. The meetings also providing a vital opportunity for students to learn more about SGA, and the College in general. “We get guest speakers like Ruth Policella (the director of Campus Life) and Dr. Blair Madore from Faculty Senate. It's important for students to know who these people are. I really do enjoy being that bridge of communication for students, faculty and staff. That sense of transparency is really important.”

Her development into an eloquent public speaker started in her speech communication classes at SUNY Potsdam, a supportive training ground to refine her craft. Both “Basic Principles of Speech” with Dr. Trevor Blank, and “Persuasive Speaking,” with professor emeritus Dr. David Fregoe proved to be invaluable courses for her. “I love Dr. Blank. he's always been one of my biggest supporters,” she said. “And Persuasive Speaking is a class definitely changed my life. I used to be terrified of speaking in front of people.”

As a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, and the Black Lives Matter movement, Espinal was able to use the podium for activism, standing at the front of the class to address topics that were near and dear to her heart. “Dr. Fregoe gave me the creative freedom to discuss whatever I wanted with my classmates,” she said. “Bringing these communities (LGBTQ+ and BLM) together, amplifying their voices, and being an ally, is really important to me.”

She continued to find her voice through SUNY Potsdam’s Diversity Ambassadors and Mentors Program (PDAM), where she received diversity training, and in turn, became a mentor for other students in the program. Through that program, she worked with Dr. Matt LaVine, who proved to be an extremely supportive presence in her life from that moment forward—including now helping her fill out graduate school applications. "He has always listened to my thoughts and opinions and taken them into consideration. I've learned so much about the importance of education and how far my potential can take me from Matt's leadership," she said.

Her involvement on campus continued as she also completed an internship mentoring first-year students in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), designed to help students from economically challenged backgrounds succeed at SUNY Potsdam. Her junior year she worked as a public relations officer for the Black Student Alliance (BSA), putting her graphic design skills to use as she designed posters and tickets for their annual fashion show. All of those experiences paved the way for her work with SGA.

This semester, Espinal is completing a three-credit internship in conjunction with her role as treasurer, and devoting even more time to managing the budgets of clubs all over campus. “It’s a very intense time for us because we’re basically meeting with every single club, looking at their budget, and figuring out what they're going to spend next year,” she said. “I feel like it was just a perfect time to do an internship because now I can do my research paper, articulate how I do my job, and discuss how it has changed me and made me more of a leader.”

When Espinal first arrived at SUNY Potsdam, she knew that she wanted to pursue a field in the arts, something that she had been passionate about since she was a child. The graphic design program proved to be a perfect fit. But, she soon decided to also embrace the challenge of pursuing a degree in speech communication as well—an especially impressive undertaking considering English is her second language. Growing up in the Bronx she only spoke Spanish with her parents and grandparents at home, but she didn’t start learning English until she entered elementary school. “I've been making art since I was a child, so I always knew that I wanted to do that, but I wanted to also challenge myself and take a leap, and with speech communication, I think that's the best decision I've ever made. I'm so happy,” she said.

Thinking back on her time at Potsdam, the one thing that always returns to the forefront of her mind is that every person she has ever interacted with, both positively and negatively, has had an impact on her life, and molded her into the person she is today. She encourages first-year students to embrace those personal interactions with students, faculty and staff as they transition from high school to college. “They have all played a huge role in my life in terms of becoming a better person, always learning, always growing, and becoming a more inclusive person.”

As she wraps up her undergraduate degree this year, she plans on applying for the M.S. in Management program at SUNY Potsdam with a focus on organizational leadership. The future is wide open for Espinal, who could see herself as a professor, administrator, or writer. Whatever she does, the skills she’s developed as an effective communicator will lead the way to a successful future.

To learn more about the Department of English and Communication, visit:

Article and photos by Jason Hunter