After playing a key role in the campaign to re-elect U.S. Senator Tina Smith last November, Edwin Torres ’16 decided to take a little time off to decide what came next.
With an impressive resume that also includes serving as the National Latino Outreach Director for the presidential campaign of Amy Klobuchar, Smith’s fellow senator from Minnesota, Torres had no shortage of potentially lucrative options.
But when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s office approached him about helping to lead the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts, Torres couldn’t refuse.
So, since January, the Saint John’s University graduate has been working 10 to 12 hours a day – often seven days a week – as the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach Director, helping connect Minnesotans with the shots that will soon hopefully help bring the ongoing global pandemic to an end.
“This is by far the grandest thing I’ve been able to do when it comes to the size and scope of people impacted,” Torres said. “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. We have a lot of work left to do, of course. But we’ve gotten a lot accomplished. Minnesota has been among the top states in the nation when it comes to vaccine distribution.”
Torres’ duties include reaching out to BIPOC, non-English speaking and undocumented communities, some of which have been hit hard by the spread of the virus and don’t always have access to needed medical care.
That’s a struggle Torres can understand. When he was a small child, his parents were forced to leave he and his brother behind in El Salvador when they came to the U.S. in search of a better life for their family.
He was reunited with his parents in California when he was six, but the road was far from easy. By the time he graduated high school, his family had moved 12 times and he had attended 10 different schools. On two occasions, they found themselves homeless, and obtaining medical care was often difficult.
“I’m someone who never had health insurance,” said Torres, who continues to receive two-year extensions to live and work in the U.S. as a member of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) community.
“From when I got to this country at the age of 6 until when I enrolled in college at age 18, I never went to a dentist. We never had medical care. Being undocumented and living in the shadows, that’s something that just wasn’t there. So to now be able to assure that our most vulnerable communities get the vaccine, which is lifesaving, is just an incredible privilege. To be able to help out families that look like mine is so humbling.
“I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time.”
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan has worked closely with Torres on vaccination outreach, including to employees in the state’s food processing sector. She said the level of understanding he brings to the table has helped him form genuine connections with those he is trying to reach.
“Part of outreach is sometimes having the hard conversations,” Flanagan said. “But he answers all the tough questions and forms real bonds.
“He’s smart, compassionate and empathetic. He really cares about people and community and that comes through.”
When it comes to his current position, Torres said he has been able to draw upon his experience working on campaigns.
“I try to run this effort like we would a voter outreach effort,” he said. “Let’s get as many people as possible registered for the vaccine connector. Let’s employ text messages. Let’s go door-to-door
“The type of outreach you do during a campaign is very similar to the things we’re doing now.”
Torres will continue in his role through the summer before starting work on a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota in late August.
“I will always look back to the time I was called to service by the governor,” he said. “I could have done a lot of other things. But I felt like I owed it to give back to the state that gave me my education, that gave me opportunities to succeed. And as one of the only DACA representatives working at the highest levels of the vaccine distribution effort, I feel like I’m able to bring our voices to the table on a daily basis.
“I can’t escape who I am,” Torres said. “My background and my experience inform everything I do. So I put more pressure on myself to assure that, whatever position I’m in, my ancestors, my family and other members of my community are there with me. Every step I take, I’m taking a step for them as well.”
And with each step he continues to make good on the mission he set for himself soon after arriving on campus at SJU as a first-year student in the fall of 2012.
“I’ve kept a journal I wrote in during my first night at Saint John’s sitting in my room on the third floor of Mary Hall,” Torres said. “I wrote that I’d been given this chance, now I had to take it and run and keep running. I wrote that when I was 18 back in 2012 and it’s still true today.
“When I was given a chance with Sen. Klobuchar, I said ‘Take it and keep running.’ When I was given a chance with Sen. Smith, I said ‘Take it and keep running.’ Now working with the governor’s administration on our vaccination efforts, I’m trying to do the same thing.
“I try to take every opportunity I have and make the most of it, while putting a ladder down behind me so other people like me are able to have the same experiences in the future.”