“Orange is the New Black” actress and activist Selenis Leyva visited Southern Miss on March 11 for an event sponsored by SMAC.
Leyva began her speech, titled “Untold Stories: A New Beginning in Promoting Intercultural Competence, Developing Social Change, Inclusion, and Finding the Courage to Never Give Up and Follow Your Dreams,” by talking about her story.
When she was young, her middle school counselor discouraged her from applying to a performing arts high school. She instead followed her gut, applied and got accepted.
“What really changed my life was that 14-year-old girl who walked into that guidance counselor’s office and said, ‘I am going to go to LaGuardia High School. Give me the application, please.’ That’s what changed life. Somehow, I believed in myself,” Leyva said.
She also spoke about the struggle she went through as an actress, working for 20 years on various odd jobs to make ends meet before her big break in “Orange is the New Black.”
“Later on, I got to a place in my life where I was a single mom and I was not making enough money. I kept calling the telephone company, saying, ‘Look, if I give you $50, can you keep my phone on?’ That was life up until around nine years ago,” Leyva said.
Throughout her talk, Leyva especially focused on the importance of believing in yourself and focusing on your dreams.
“The only person who can get in your way is you. Once I tapped into that reality, I realized that I could do anything that I want… Once you believe in yourself, there is nobody, nobody that can tell you that you can’t achieve what you want,” Leyva said.
After telling students about her journey to success, Leyva answered questions about her experiences and gave advice on topics ranging from mental health to career advice.
Asia Montgomery, a sophomore entertainment and film major, was one of many students who attended the event. Even though she had never seen any of Leyva’s work, Montgomery said she wanted to hear from a fellow woman of color in the film industry. She said she enjoyed the talk and the advice that Leyva gave to students.
“Some people are overnight successes, and that happens a lot today, but I think her story is just proof that if you put in the hard work and if you really want to, you can make something truly genuine,” Montgomery said. “Even though now I may feel like giving up on my dreams, she didn’t and she’s doing well.”
Sophomore theater major Camille Colley said she attended Leyva’s speech to hear from a woman with so much experience in the entertainment industry. She said she thought Leyva’s story was inspirational and a learning experience.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I am 20 years old. It took her my entire life to make her big break— 20 years. But her strength, faith and hard work drove her to build a career for herself, and I really, truly, think that that is an amazing and inspiring thing,” Colley said.