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‘She took advantage of every day’: Friends, Notre Dame community members remember Valeria Espinel

| Friday, November 13, 2020

To Valeria Espinel’s friends, it seemed like she had an unlimited amount of time. That she could do everything productive for school and more and still have time to be there for her friends. Almost like she was working with an extra few hours more than anyone else.

People say freshman year of college is hard. That it’s hard to find a balance between meeting new friends, doing school work and adjusting to a new environment — adding in a pandemic can’t make it any easier. 

Courtesy of Lorena Colon

Valeria Espinel celebrated her birthday on campus with a gathering planned by her best friend Olivia Laura Rojas.

But somehow it seemed as if Valeria found the time to “meet everyone” in the Latino community within just two months of starting college, get ahead in school and plan for internships as just a freshman. Her friends say she made more friends than they ever thought possible in two months.

A native of Guayaquil, Ecuador, Valeria lived in Badin Hall until she was killed in a car accident in October, along with her best friend Olivia Laura Rojas.

According to Badin Hall rector Sr. Susan Sisko, Valeria always “bounced down the hallways.”

Valeria’s Badin Hall resident assistant, Grace Kaiser, said she “had an effortless confidence and liveliness” that anyone could sense after meeting her.

“Val used to give me and everyone in our section these sweets called Dulces de Leche that she brought for us from Ecuador. She would leave a whole stack of them in the candy bowl outside of my room for all to share. Before the campus-wide prayer service, we as a Badin community had a short service for Valeria at the Grotto. Pretty much our entire dorm community and even some off-campus Bullfrogs showed up, which I think is a testament to how loved Valeria is and how much she will be missed,” Kaiser said in an email.

Through Zoom calls, GroupMe messages and Facebook groups, Valeria made friends with fellow first years as soon as she could. Many of her friends she hung out with every day throughout the semester she made before stepping foot onto Notre Dame’s campus in the fall.

Courtesy of Carlos Fabrega

Valeria, left, and Olivia.

Once she got to campus, Valeria and her friends she’d met in the Notre Dame Latino community would hang out every day.

“We studied a lot together and [did] basically everything [together],” first-year Augusto Simons said. “We were always together with her. She was very close to all of us. She was a great friend. … She had a lot of friends.”

Although her friends said the Latino community at Notre Dame is a very welcoming one, they noted Valeria had a special ability to make friends quicker than anyone else.

First-year Nico Lopez counts Valeria as his first friend at Notre Dame.

“She was friends with everyone. I mean, it’s kind of impressive,” Lopez said. “I was a little bit jealous because she would become best friends with everybody. … Every single day I would meet another person who would say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re friends with Valeria.’”

According to her friends, Valeria put as much work as she did making friends into school as well.

“You can define her, basically, as a work hard, play hard type of person. She was always in every plan she could go to, and she would always seek out to hang out with people and to meet new people and to build new friendships,” Simons said. “But she was also extremely responsible with school. She was always on top of every class, she would help us with our classes we were having trouble with, she was very responsible with all her homework. She was like the perfect student, basically, because she was a very all-around person.”

With that seemingly unlimited resource of time, Valeria pushed everyone around her to be better.

“She was one of the most well-rounded people I’ve ever known. It was like she had an unlimited resource or resource of time, … like she had so much time, but she had the same time as us. She got so much done in the same time as we did. And she helped us catch that pace and become better versions of ourselves,” Lopez said. 

First-year Lorena Colon, who became friends with Valeria before they arrived on campus, echoed Lopez’s sentiments.

“She just made everyone feel good. And she would never bring anyone down. She really cared about all her friends, and finding that balance between studies and having fun. I think she didn’t want to sacrifice like one for the other,” Colon, her roommate, added. “She would always push you to be a better version of yourself.”

One of her friends, first-year Juan Alvaro, remembers when Valeria would go out of her way to remind him to do his work.

“Something really special she used to do for me is that I’m very prone to falling behind in classes, especially Moreau. So after she found out [that] I started to fall behind in Moreau for the second time, she would always remind me even though her Moreau wasn’t the same day as mine,” he said. “She would always text me Monday nights and be like, ‘Hey, do your Moreau.’”

Valeria met her best friend Olivia prior to arriving at Notre Dame, and by all accounts, they were inseparable.

“They were always together,” Simons said. “It was very common to hear in the sentence, ‘Valeria and Olivia.’ They came together, basically. Like they were always together.”

“Every single picture, it was Valeria and Olivia. Everything they did, they did together. It was very impressive for us how they became so close through Zoom and how they really made such a strong friendship,” Lopez added.

Many of Valeria’s Notre Dame friends were able to meet her friends and family from home in Ecuador through video chats, and Valeria remained extremely close with her parents and three younger brothers while at school.

“I think we could all agree that she brought up part of Ecuador with her, and we all got to live a little bit of it through her,” Alvaro said.

After Valeria’s death, friends from Ecuador wrote and sang an original song for her called “Little Miss Perfect” that now has over 8,000 views in an Instagram post

The song professes Valeria “always cared for everyone else,” and she “never let life bring [her] down, those were the things she lived by.”

According to the song, Valeria was called “little miss perfect” growing up.

Although she only was enrolled at Notre Dame for a short time, Valeria made it clear to her friends that she loved Notre Dame.

“I remember that she talked to me about her decision making, and she was accepted into a large number of selective institutions. But she never flinched about choosing Notre Dame because she felt like it was going to be the place where she will not only become a better student, which she already was, but she would become a better person,” Lopez said. “I think that she was striving more to become a better person more than a better student because she was already an amazing student. She was pushing her academics even farther. But Notre Dame does a very good job of forming you as a person. And I think that she really felt connected to that.”

Her friends remember her as always taking advantage of every opportunity in life and for her quirks, some of the things that made Valeria, Valeria — an obsession with tuna, her baking business she began in quarantine and being a self-admitted easy crier are just a few. But above all, they remember Valeria as being so happy with the life she’d made for herself in the Notre Dame community.

“She was the happiest here that she’s been in her life. She was constantly telling us that she was very happy here and that Notre Dame was everything that she ever wanted and more. And her parents knew that, her friends knew that,” Lopez said. “I think that we all thank the Notre Dame community as a whole for having given Valeria such an amazing place to be, even if it was not for the longest of times.”

Following Valeria’s death, her friends found agreement in one specific thing about her life, something they want to emulate going forward in their own lives.

“When I was talking about this with our friends,” Colon said. “The one thing we agreed on is that she definitely enjoyed her time here and lived as fully as she could, even though it was a very short amount of time. That’s what we were talking about. We were like, ‘We should try to live as fully as she did.’ Because she really did make the most out of her time here.”

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and serves as Managing Editor of The Observer. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

Contact Mariah