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Marquette Wire

MUSG Speaker Series features Dascha Polanco

Dascha Polanco talks to students about losing her mother as well as becoming a teen mom and struggling with self-confidence as an adolescent.
Photo by Jordan Johnson
Dascha Polanco talks to students about losing her mother as well as becoming a teen mom and struggling with self-confidence as an adolescent.

Clapping and screaming erupted from inside the Alumni Memorial Union ballroom as Dascha Polanco sauntered into the room. The “Orange is the New Black” star smiled and laughed before taking her place on stage behind the podium.

The event, part of Marquette University Student Government’s Speaker Series, consisted of a talk followed by a Q&A with the audience.

Polanco rose to fame a few years ago when she appeared as Dayanara Diaz on the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” which originally premiered July 2013. She was promoted from an occasionally recurring role to a series regular shortly after the second season and since then appeared in movies “Joy” with Jennifer Lawrence in 2015 and “The Perfect Match” in 2016.

Polanco has been sharing the personal story of losing her mother, becoming a single teen mom and struggling with self-confidence at schools and universities across the country.

Gary Sperber, assistant director of intercultural engagement, said Polanco’s empowering talks are what prompted him to reach out and ask her to speak at Marquette.

“We encourage Marquette students (to) go out and be the difference,” Sperber said. “(Polanco) is one of many people who are being the difference. I think it’s great because she brings the complexity of the different levels of her identity and how that has helped her develop resilience and courage to go out and take risks.”

Most of Polanco’s talk revolved around her life before her rise to fame and her eventual audition for the role of Daya Diaz.

Polanco kicked off the event by sharing a few snapshots of her life story.

“I’m an immigrant, raised in Brooklyn in a very diverse community,” she said. “New York is what I envision as the capital of the world, and you encounter segregation and isolation when you step outside it.”

Sprinkled with jokes and laughter, Polanco told the story of herself: a little Latina girl growing up in an immigrant family from Puerto Rico, feeling like she didn’t quite fit into the cultures of either Puerto Rico or the United States. Polanco’s openness about her struggles with her plus-size body, ethnicity and feeling pressure as a woman allowed her to quickly connect with her audience.

“Dascha was very real and honest about her life, her journey of self-love and the struggles she faced,” Iviany Ruberte, a Marquette alumna, said. “I think she was fearless and empowering. She is all about putting yourself first and not putting up with anyone that doesn’t add any value to your life.”

Ruberte was not the only audience member who said she felt impacted by Polanco’s story. Johnny Irias, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, said he connected to Polanco’s use of higher education to get out of an underprivileged neighborhood.

“She talked about how she realized she didn’t want to be on welfare or food stamps anymore, and that’s what pushed her forward to seek higher education for her family,” Irias said. “I relate to that because I know what it was like to have no food on the table when I was younger. That pushed me to realize that when I have a family when I’m older, I want to be able to provide for them.”

After telling the story of her early life, Polanco moved on to tell the story of auditioning and getting her role on “Orange is the New Black”. Despite her belief that she was not skinny or white enough to be chosen, Polanco said she took the risk and auditioned. While she was on-call as a nurse, she received the call that she had earned the role. Her whole life was about to change.

Audience questions regarding Polanco’s childhood years revealed that she was a teen mom.

“Yes, I had an early teenage pregnancy, but that didn’t stop me from focusing on my dreams,” she said. 

Ruberte said Polanco is a great role model for those who feel there are too many gendered, ethnic and societal standards blocking them from pursuing their passions.

“I think Dascha is a great role model for all women,” Ruberte said. “She promotes confidence, self-love and hard work. She wants everyone to be the best version of themselves and to not be scared of their dreams.”

Diana Mandujano, a junior in the College of Communications said she was a huge fan of the show.

“She was also hilarious to listen to in real life and a great public speaker, so I really enjoyed this event,” Mandujano said.

Polanco recently wrapped up the seventh and final season of “Orange is the New Black,” which will air in 2019. She said she is currently speaking around the country, working on some music of her own and continuing to audition for acting roles.

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