Latina’s giant leap from undocumented immigrant to first-generation doctora

She was born in a small town in the Colombian Amazon and arrived as an undocumented immigrant with her family in the US when she was eight years old. She was a dreamer, in both the legal and literal senses, with a passion for education, first receiving and later giving. 

 Ingrid Ramon Parra

Ingrid Ramón Parra (PhD ’21) helps vulnerable communities tell their stories and receive inclusive and just representation in media. (Photo provided)

Her journey called her to study, research, and teach in some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet. It led her to Purdue University, where as a cultural anthropology doctoral student she returned to the Amazon and lived with an Indigenous tribe for a year to teach and conduct field work for her dissertation.

Today, Ingrid Ramón Parra (PhD ’21) has come full circle. Her giant leap from one of the most vulnerable members of our population—an undocumented immigrant child in the US—to doctora, recipient of a doctoral degree from Purdue and dual citizenship of the US and Colombia, enables her to use all of her faculties to help others as vulnerable as she once was.

She credits her success to her failures, her family, hard work, a little luck, her supporters, and some assistance along the way—including the well-timed, unexpected award of a graduate women’s scholarship made possible through the generosity of Linda Mason, dean of The Graduate School and professor of entomology.

The eldest of five siblings in a working class family, Ramón Parra took refuge in school in her adopted country and excelled at it. In high school, she became interested in Amazonian conservation and environmentalism.

“My family has a history in the region, so I always felt connected to the Amazon,” Ramón Parra said.

She dreamed about attending college, but her immigration status threatened to ground her before she could take the first small step. She got the green card in the “nick of time.”

“That was probably one of the biggest turning point events in my life, because all of a sudden I had an opportunity for a future that I didn't have before.”

She was the first person in her family to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree. But, she felt she wasn’t done and decided to pursue a master’s degree.

To support herself through a master’s program, she taught high school at underserved communities in East Los Angeles and Watts. It was a grueling schedule, teaching all day and studying late into the night.

“I was pretty much doing everything on my own because I didn't have anyone to turn to, to ask for help. So, I was navigating, making mistakes along the way, getting lucky along the way, but nonetheless, I made it.”

In college, she developed a fascination with the Kayapó People's leadership in Amazonian conservation and their use of media as a cultural and political tool. A new dream had taken shape that combined her passion to support vulnerable communities, technology skills, and familial connection to the Amazon: she wanted to work with the Kayapó in a media-making project.

She applied to a doctoral program under advisor Laura Zanotti, professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue.

“When I was accepted into the program, I was elated because I saw how my hard work had paid off. I was closer to fulfilling a dream of becoming an anthropologist and a doctora–and I would get the chance to embark on the project of a lifetime.”

The Kayapó are the stewards of one of the last remaining federally protected areas of the Amazon. They are key activists in Amazonian conservation and Indigenous rights.

Ramón Parra noticed that while the Kayapó are savvy filmmakers, a lot of the history and experiences they shared in the media were centered on men’s stories. She felt an important voice was missing from the narrative, so she structured her dissertation around addressing that void, returned to her native South America, and embedded herself with the Kayapó for a year. 


Ingrid Ramón Parra spent a year in the Amazon training Kayapó women to make and share films while conducting research for her dissertation. (Photo provided)

“I went with the goal of training a group of young women how to use laptops and all the tech that is necessary to take original film, edit it the way that they want, and share it with whom they want.”

Pursuing a doctoral degree is hard work for most everyone, Ramón Parra was no exception. It took her seven years to complete her PhD.

“I had a major culture shock in the Midwest being a person of color, the snow, everything was a challenge. But, I held on tight, stayed focused on my goal, and had amazing support from my advisor,” she said. “It was a grand challenge in my life to get to the end. But I did it. It was not easy. It never is.”

A significant boost came while she was writing her dissertation from the surprise award of a graduate women’s scholarship made possible through the generosity of Dean Linda Mason.

Mason was inspired by the Purdue Women’s Network endowment of scholarships for undergraduate women to create a similar opportunity for graduate women. So, she established a scholarship for the advancement of graduate women at Purdue who are not supported by an assistantship or fellowship. Ramón Parra was the inaugural 2020-21 recipient.

“From the perspective of both a woman with a PhD as well as dean of a graduate school, I am acutely aware of the unique challenges that women—especially minority and international women, face in securing adequate funding and pursuing an advanced degree. These women are doing amazing work and offer great promise for the future. I’m thrilled to play a role in supporting their success,” Mason said.

Ramón Parra was shocked when she learned she’d won the $1,000 award. It was not just a welcome financial boost—while she was writing her dissertation, she had only a part-time job to support herself, but it was a much needed boost to her self-esteem.

The fact that the scholarship is intended for women was especially rewarding to Ramón Parra, both because her research is gender-based and because of the challenges she faced as a Latina scholar. 


Ingrid Ramón Parra, formerly an undocumented immigrant, now a dual citizen of the US and Colombia, is a first-generation doctoral recipient. (Photo provided)

“It is so important to support women scholars,” Ramón Parra said. “We come from so many different backgrounds, and a lot of times we are the first people in our family to be pursuing these paths, especially at the doctoral level. Society is telling you in your late twenties, early thirties, you should be getting married and doing other things. Some of us are fighting the misconceptions or stereotypes that people have about who we are, about what we should be doing at this age, whether getting a PhD as a woman is worth it. All of these things are always putting pressure on you, and for the women who want to pursue an intellectual life and professional self-expression, any kind of support like this scholarship is really instrumental. It's a reminder that we matter, that we're important, and that our work in our scholarship is important.”

Ramón Parra’s doctoral degree was conferred in August 2021. Currently, she is working for a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps the government improve social services through technology, including websites and apps, for people across the US and Puerto Rico who need it the most.

She has come full circle. She found her voice through higher education, and now uses her voice to help others in vulnerable communities find theirs. Long-term, she hopes to continue to work at the cross-section of technology, inclusion, and justice.

“I'm really interested in digital inclusion and digital justice for communities of color in the US and also across the globe, especially communities who haven't had access, who've been excluded, who haven't had the opportunity to represent themselves in the digital world, but are usually represented by other people.”

Her greatest joy is to “be able to bring everything together. Your passion, your experience, your language skills, everything you've learned in school, everything you've learned at your job, and being able to meld it all together. It's harder to do than one may think, but when you're able to do it, it feels so empowering.”

To learn more about Kayapó media making efforts in the Brazilian Amazon, please visit

If you wish to make a gift to support Purdue graduate students, please contact Karen McCullough, director of scholarship stewardship and development for the Purdue for Life Foundation, at or 765-494-1184. Learn more about giving opportunities in support of graduate students on the Graduate School website.


Writer: Korina Wilbert,

October 07, 2021

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