For more than 60 years, Glamour has honored exceptional college women across the U.S. This year, we turned our focus to students enrolled in community college. Meet Sabrina Valadez-Rios, an aspiring nurse, a public health advocate, and possibly the future mayor of Oakland, California.
If you aren’t convinced that Sabrina Valadez-Rios might be an angel on earth, consider this: She drives around West Oakland, California, with hygiene packs for unhoused people and zip-lock bags filled with dog food in case she spots any strays. Plus, there’s just something in her voice that puts you at ease, and her heart is full of empathy for those dealing with loss, a concept she’s intimately familiar with.
When she was just 11 and growing up in the “rougher parts” of West Oakland, her father, Francisco Javier, was shot and killed in front of her childhood home. After his death, she was dealing with another kind of loss, as she says her mother struggled with mental health and wasn’t able to care for her children the same way she had before.
Javier had been enrolled at Berkeley City College and accepted to U.C. Berkeley, but when Valadez-Rios’s mother became pregnant with Sabrina, he paused his college education to care for his family. Now Valadez-Rios is continuing his legacy, as the first in his family to attend college, even enrolling in his former school, Berkeley City College, and a sister school, Alameda College in Alameda.
“He was the perfect balance of street smart and book smart, which I feel like I get from him,” Valadez-Rios says.
She’s taking one to two classes a semester so she can apply to nursing school and become a registered nurse. The degree and the license would enable her to do more for her community, but she still has to deal with some insecurity at work while she’s learning.
“I’m surrounded by so many intelligent people with all these degrees,” Valadez-Rios says. “Sometimes I feel less than. I’ll find myself not knowing what a word is or jotting down a word because later I search it up. So I do find little moments like that, but then I always look at myself and I’m like, ‘No, you’re here for a reason. You’re doing all these amazing things and you’re in school, you’re going to get there.’”
In addition to being a student, Valadez-Rios works as a program specialist at Lifelong Medical Care, a health center that caters to Medicaid patients. She wanted to do more with her newfound knowledge of the medical nonprofit field as she watched her community struggle and houselessness increase. When circumstances at home led to time spent in a women’s shelter, the lack of resources and the people she met there stuck with her.
“Just coming back into the real world after being there for a couple of days, I just looked at people and their sadness,” Valadez-Rios says. “It’s that look in their eyes. I was like, ‘How can I help you?’ We’re put on this world to help each other.”
She started volunteering in her spare time at the grassroots organization Freedom Community Clinic, which mixes an Indigenous, ancestral healing approach with Western medicine. This holistic health care is brought directly to the community, and Valadez-Rios leads outreach with the unhoused community. She and her team give out first-aid kits, patch up wounds, and even bandage barefoot pregnant women—but they provide something you may not typically see at an unhoused encampment: massage therapy. They bring blankets and massage tables to unhoused people, allowing them to keep an eye on their belongings and feel safe for a few minutes while they’re being treated.
“When you’re living out in the street, you’re always on your toes,” Valadez-Rios says. “You can never fully relax or take a deep breath because touch is not a good thing when you’re out in the street. You think of touch as violent. People get mugged and robbed. So, to be in this position to bring out people to do a quick massage and think of touch as a good thing, it’s so fulfilling.”
Her team administers reiki healing, which she calls “an energetic massage.” The process goes like this: A patient would tell the reiki practitioner what’s going on in their life, and the practitioner will align their stressors and root cause with their chakras, moving energy out of or into their body as needed. It also involves guided breathing, and Valadez-Rios says it feels like floating. It’s been very healing for her own grieving process, more so than talking to a therapist or seeking counseling.
“Even on my own journey, I always looked at massages as a luxury and only would do it on a spa day or something like that,” Valadez-Rios says. “I’ve actually found it to be very releasing to go into my whole grieving and heal my inner child.”