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A Model Citizen

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Casselberry’s Gabbie Buendia is a two-time valedictorian and one of America’s brightest young minds

When Gabbie Buendia of Casselberry stood up in May to address a sea of Rollins College graduates as their valedictorian, it was a familiar experience. She spoke as a valedictorian at Lyman High School just four years earlier. Though the setting was similar, so much had changed for Gabbie in such a short time.
Only a few months before the Rollins commencement, after decades of waiting and uncertainty, Gabbie learned that she was the first person in her family to be approved for U.S. citizenship. In both her valedictorian speeches, Gabbie spoke about opportunity, patience, and hard work, but they weren’t empty themes. They were principles she and her family have practiced in the U.S. for the past two decades.

The Path of Progress
During the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Gabbie, her sister, and their parents came to the United States from the Philippines. Gabbie’s parents – who both worked in the architecture field – arrived in America with $200, their work visas, and dreams of quality education for their girls. Their third daughter was born in the U.S.

“I did not come through DACA, and my family has been very fortunate to remain documented,” explains Gabbie, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy – enacted in 2012 – in which children can receive renewable, delayed action from deportation. The Buendia family was able to settle in Central Florida because several of Gabbie’s aunts and uncles were already established here.

However, Gabbie says, the family’s immigration journey has been a long, expensive one that she is just now beginning to understand. Applications, attorneys, and years of uncertainty played out behind the scenes while Gabbie was busy excelling in school.

“I have loved my time at Lyman and Rollins,” she says.

Her road from high school to college included a layover, however.

Gabbie began her college career at Hamilton College in rural New York with a plan to major in chemistry. It was a subject in which she had always done well, crediting Lyman teacher Kelley Talopau for kindling her love for the discipline. But during Gabbie’s sophomore year, she realized that being far from family did not suit her.

Walks through Hamilton’s campus arboretum, however, sparked a different passion. Gabbie began to connect with nature. She became interested in environmental studies after taking a Hamilton environment and society class, and she transferred to Rollins to major in the subject.

Once back in Central Florida, Gabbie took a more-specific interest in environmental justice. The way people grow up and how they view their environment fascinated Gabbie, and she coupled her studies with a minor in sexuality, women’s, and gender studies. 

The environment and sexuality may seem like distant topics. But Gabbie’s 90-page Rollins thesis – which she worked on for a year – meshed the two, focusing on how women have qualities specially geared toward environmental activism. Earth Mommas: The Impact of Mothers on the Environmental Justice Movement featured five women from Florida and Michigan. All live in areas affected by environmental problems, including an Apopka farmworker who developed health challenges due to toxic chemicals and a woman from Flint, Michigan whose child was impacted by the water crisis there.  

Beyond the Classroom
In addition to her perfect 4.0 grade-point average, Gabbie became involved in environmental justice and environmental education after the school day was done.

She was a co-lead sustainability coordinator at the college’s Committee on Environmental and Sustainable Initiatives, which advises the Rollins administration on issues involving the environment and policy, curriculum, and facility. Gabbie also served at the Lucy Cross Center for Women and Their Allies, a safe, inclusive space on campus. With great grades and all this involvement, Gabbie somehow found time to also be co-president of Voices for Women and a student leader for EMBARK, a service geared toward students with underrepresented backgrounds. She is looking forward to working with a nonprofit organization or local government, where she can “get people behind the same goal,” Gabbie says. 

The U.S. has certainly been Gabbie’s home all along – the citizenship designation is a formality that has finally come to fruition. For Gabbie, it’s just one of many reasons to celebrate, and cause enough for the community to celebrate with her. 


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