Rocio Ortega On Girl Up and HALO Awards!

At 20 years old, Rocio Ortega has already been recognized for her advocacy to empower girls around the world! Her work with Girl Up and Global Girl Media won her a TeenNick Halo Award last year.Rocio Ortega Girl Up

We recently spoke with Rocio about her passion for giving other young women a voice, and about the change she has instigated with some amazing organizations!

Rocio first became introduced to Girl Up through working with Global Girl Media, an organization that works to empower girls in under-served communities around the world through media training and more.

"I immediately fell in love with the mission because I always wanted to get involved in addressing the need for girls in developing countries like Ethiopia to be safe, healthy, educated and counted," Rocio said. "The older women in my life were born and raised in Mexico so I saw first hand the issues girls face living in a developing country – I just wanted to do my share and help girls."

As a part of Global Girl Media, Rocio was also learning about how important it was for females to weigh in on issues.

"Girls' voices are important regardless of where they live," she said. "I thought getting involved with Girl Up was the next step to achieving global female empowerment."

Girl Up is a United Nations Foundation campaign that works with girls in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia and Malawi to ensure that they have access to education and the means to get healthy. It also works to give these girls a voice.

"By raising awareness and funds by American youth, like myself, we assure girls living in these countries are equipped to be the next generation of leaders," she said.

Girl Up is also unique in that it is led by young people.

"For example, in 2011 I started a Girl Up club in my high school to get more youth involved and together we lobbied for the passage of bills like the End to Child Marriage Bill and the Girls Count Act," Rocio said.

She served as a Teen Advisor in 2011 and 2012, and when she started college she became a  Youth Champion for Girl Up.

When we spoke, Rocio had recently returned from visiting Ethiopia as part of a Girl Up delegation. She visited refugee camps, schools and other spaces and met with young female Somali refugees who left Somalia when civil war broke out.

"In these refugee camps, girls go to school and have their own girl-friendly spaces where they can feel safe to talk about anything that they want relating to girls," she explained. "It's like a Girl Up club. After interacting with girls who are my age or younger, I found that our stories and struggles are the same."

It fascinated Rocio that she was able to connect with these girls on so many levels.

"We are the first in our family to attend school after our parents left their native country, we both learned English as our second language and we both acknowledge the need for an education as self empowerment," she said. "It's beautiful because at the end of the day we may look different but we're all girls."

These interactions are just a small part of what makes Girl Up so important.

"Girl Up helps bridge the gap between girls living all over the world so we can work together and assure girls all over the world are educated, safe and healthy," she said.

With Global Girl Media, Rocio trains girls in leadership and broadcast journalism as a tool to spread the word about issues that face girls everywhere.

"The media really is becoming an effective tool for social change," she said. "By giving girls the tools to be citizen journalists, not only are you helping them find their voice, but you are investing in a community."

Broadcast journalism doesn't just give those who already have a voice the chance to share what they see. It can also give a voice to girls who have never had the chance to be heard before.

"I learned that broadcast journalism was an avenue to raise awareness about the issues that matter to me, like the need for female empowerment, immigration reform and political activism," she said. "The power about broadcast journalism is that it can reach countless people, and by handing a girl a camera, she is going to tell a story the way she wants to – and that's revolutionary."

In 2010, when Girl Up officially launched, Rocio couldn't wait to be part of the organization's pilot clubs around the world. She started a Girl Up club at her own school.

"A lot of my peers and even teachers and adults in my community never thought about issues girls face like child marriage, not registered at birth, fistulas, etc," she explained. "It was challenging starting this club because my community is dominantly patriarchal so I would get questions like "Why help girls?" This upset me but this also motivated me to build up this club."

Now, the school's Girl Up club is in its fourth year, and has sent five of its members to Washington, D.C. for the annual Girl Up Leadership summit. There the club members have gotten the chance to  interact with members from across the country and get to lobby for bills for the first time in their lives.

Rocio was honored at TeenNick's 2013 HALO Awards for her incredible work. She relished the opportunity to be able to speak to so many young people who cared.

"I had a captive audience to whom I could spread the message about empowering girls in the media, politics, education, business, etc," she said. "I was very honored to be receiving this award because when I'm out there giving presentations about Girl Up or working with my Congress members for the passage of bills, I never think of how I'll be recognized."

She said that she was surprised to be acknowledged on such a large scale by such a recognized brand.

"But I knew I had to use this opportunity to encourage young people to get involved with the efforts of female empowerment," she said.

The award show not only gave her the chance to inspire and motivate kids, but also get a little bit of the superstar treatment!

"The coolest part of the whole experience – aside from delivering my speech in live national television – was meeting a young Latina hip-hop artist who I admire the most, Becky G," Rocio said. "She's 17 and found a passion in music, but no matter how many red carpets she walks, she stays true to the Latino culture and pride."

Rocio even got to do a CoverGirl promo shoot alongside Becky G.

"It was really cool getting my make-up done by Covergirl!" she said.

At the heart of all of Rocio's efforts is the message of girl power.

"Girl power should be priority in this world because girls make up over half of the population in this world!" She said. "There are 600 million children in the world who don't go to school and over half of them are girls. I always wonder what life my mother and aunts would have if they were given the opportunity to go to school."

Rocio herself is one of the first in her family to have the opportunity to attend college. She said she was also lucky to have opportunities such as traveling to Ethiopia on behalf of the United Nations Foundation.

"I just wonder how many more girls can do the same or more if they are given an opportunity to do so?" she asked. "The way I see it, girls living in developing countries are waiting to uncap their potential and once they are given that opportunity they will take it globally. Point is, we can't let the boys have all the fun, it's time girls stand up and take leadership roles in this world."

Currently, Rocio is a second year student at Wellesley College. She noted that the school is the alma mater of one of her biggest "sheroes," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rocio is pursuing degrees in political science as well as Latin American studies.

She's also Senator for Mezcla, a Latina organization on the Wellesley campus, is involved with the school's political organizations, and works with college organizations to have Girl Up represented on campus.

"As for plans for the future, this summer I am planning on attending the third annual Girl Up Leadership summit and staying involved with Global Girl Media as they open new chapters in Oakland, CA and Brazil," she said.

She also plans to work in Sacramento for a female state official, and become the first in her family to study abroad by spending her junior year of college in Spain as well as Latin America.

Once she finishes college, she plans to join the Peace Corps, continue to support female politicians and one day run for office!

"I just really want to emphasize that it doesn't matter where you come from, you too can make the change you want to see in the world, but it all starts with you initiating this change," she said.

She quoted Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, who said in her acceptance speech, "No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."

"As a young first generation Mexican-American, one of my biggest worries was 'Am I going to make it to college? To see what's outside of my East Los Angeles community?'" she said. "But it takes a strong mind and will to overcome challenges and achieve our dreams and goals."

You can learn even more about Girl Up and their great work on their social pages below! Join us at to tell us what you think of Rocio's story as well as what you do to make a difference for girls in the world!