Yesenia Gallardo '10 uses her history major as a lens to see the world

by University Communications,

History had never been Yesenia Gallardo’s favorite subject in school. But that was before she took a course on African American history with Willamette University professor Seth Cotlar.

“So much thinking was happening, and my brain was functioning at a very high level,” Gallardo ’10 says. “History became a way of thinking about this world that I carry with me to this day.”

After taking Cotlar’s class, Gallardo majored in history. She used her discipline as a student to investigate environmental degradation in China. And five years later, as a graduate student at Yale, her degree is helping her research how Latino women view organic foods.

“History became a toolkit, a lens to think about solving problems,” Gallardo says. “It became a way to view the world in a way that was helpful, fun and also relevant.”

Lifelong Mentors

A Salem native, Gallardo enrolled at Willamette because of its collegiate atmosphere and proximity to her family. Only after arriving did she realize how pivotal her professors would become in her life — from helping her decide her major to encouraging her to join a team of National Science Foundation researchers in China.

“Willamette offers so many opportunities for real mentorship,” she says. “I made really great friends with people who guided me, both emotionally and on an academic level.”

Three of those mentors are history professors Cecily McCaffrey, Cotlar and Wendy Petersen Boring.

McCaffrey says Gallardo is charming and funny — an intellectual omnivore who engages with her work with clarity and passion. Because of her prodding, Gallardo joined an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate researchers as a senior to study water issues in China.

“History was relevant to China’s water crisis and to current religious conflicts,” says Gallardo, whose findings were later published. “The study piqued my interest in the environment and it gave me confidence that I could do research.”

Cotlar says Gallardo is an exceptionally independent and original thinker who pours herself into her academic work. When she studied abroad in Morocco as a junior and went to China the following year, he didn’t understand how the trips connected to her studies.

Later, he saw how the experiences helped her find her path and solidify her commitment to creating positive changes.

“Yesenia knew what she was doing,” he says. “She has a real seriousness of purpose, yet is also one of the more free-spirited people I've ever met.”

For Petersen Boring, Gallardo’s commitment to cross-disciplinary learning is what sets her apart.

“She can steer a single conversation from Islamic approaches to resource management, to gender performance and fashion in Cairo, to food sovereignty and the history of racism in the U.S. — and back around to immigration and Latino community consciousness,” Petersen Boring says.

“There are few students who naturally think across multiple disciplines simultaneously and creatively. Yesenia is one of them.”

Food Investigation

Petersen Boring is the person who convinced Gallardo to leave her job as a legal assistant in Portland to apply to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Although Gallardo was proud of the three years she spent helping crime victims, she says she was ready for a change.

“To a certain extent, it was a gamble, but there was something about this place and this school that I really liked,” she says. “Turns out that I really love what I chose.”

As part of her program, Gallardo developed a summer research project to better understand how Latino women view organic foods. With the help of her younger sister, Sidney Gallardo ’17, Yesenia spent time in Portland and Seattle to conduct door-to-door interviews to administer her survey.

Almost immediately, Yesenia learned Latino women view organic foods as superior — but they don’t understand why.

“I think there is room to do a little more education or outreach that can be coupled with a public health spin on healthy eating,” she says. “Maybe we need to think about labels and putting them in Spanish.”

Yesenia says she’s a strong advocate for natural foods and sustainable agriculture. Yet, she remains frustrated by class disparities in food systems. She’s hoping her research will shed more light on the issue.

“People say, ‘let’s eat organic, let’s eat local,’ and that’s great. But what does it mean to be poor and not able to afford this?” Yesenia says. “What does it mean to be a mom on food stamps? These issues are especially important because they intersect with public health issues.”

Interdisciplinary Approach

At Willamette, Yesenia says she learned the value of interdisciplinary research to develop sustainable solutions — and she’s applying that mindset to her research project.

For Sidney, her sister’s approach comes as no surprise.

“When she commits herself to something, she sees it through,” says Sidney, who is considering a history major herself. “Yesenia is incredibly hard working and one of the smartest people I know. She is my role model.”

Earlier this winter, Yesenia earned a Switzer Environmental Fellowship, which recognizes emerging environmental leaders who are pursuing graduate degrees. Now she's focused on graduating from Yale in the spring. She hopes to return to Portland one day to open her own business or work on food-related policies. She can even see herself running for a political office one day.

“Great things are happening with urban foods at a citywide level, from urban and community gardens to food access and land use,” she says. “I’d love to be a part of that.”