With the mantra, “education cannot be taken away from me,” I left the island of Puerto Rico in 2001 with the conviction that, if anything, my education was going to help me make my way in this country.
I had seven years of experience, $3,000 of savings and my 3-year-old daughter with me. Coming to Illinois, I spotted the city of Aurora. I was sure that was someplace where a bilingual counselor with my qualifications was needed. My first stop was at Waubonsee Community College. Since I grew up and went to college in Puerto Rico, my English needed some improvement. I knew that to be able to compete and get the job I wanted, I had to be able to communicate at a professional level, just as I did in Spanish.
In my English classes (Dr. Billy Clem and Kim Livingston were some of my professors), I noticed that the higher the college courses the less Latinx students were enrolled. If we were in Aurora, why did we not have more Latinx students getting a college education? Well, I had a long way ahead of me to learn about Aurora and our Latino community. I was in front of something very different from my experience growing up, and I felt I had the duty or the calling to do something about it. I wanted to learn more about the community that opened its arms to welcome me from day one.
When I was growing up, college was the “next logical” step to take after high school – at least that’s how I was programmed. I could not, and still can’t, see a better life without getting some education after high school. That may be because that is my parents’ story, or maybe because that is also my story. I saw my family better themselves by getting more education after completing high school. Education was like a family tradition because we helped each other achieve our goals.
In my quest to learn more about Aurora, I decided to go to Waubonsee’s counseling department with the hope of finding a bilingual counselor I could talk to about it. To my surprise, they had been looking for a bilingual counselor for almost two years. I immediately saw the opportunity I was looking for. I started working at Waubonsee in 2003 and since then my ultimate goal has always been to advocate for students, to help them not only achieve their goals but to also help them dream big. It hasn’t been easy. For years, I was the only bilingual counselor at the college and one among maybe five other faculty of color. Why didn’t we have more faculty or staff of color? Why were Latinx people not applying to these college job opportunities?
Throughout the years I have come to understand the multiple reasons why we don’t have as many Latinx students as we could. I learned that getting an education is as important as it is for other students, but they still have family and community responsibilities they cannot quit, on top of coming to college. I learned that college takes longer for some than it does for others, like the single mother of three who holds two jobs and still takes one or two classes per semester. Or an undocumented student who was able to take her licensure examination and become a nurse because her DACA application got back just in time. Or a student from Africa who became a college professor after a lot of effort. Or an ESL student who gets degrees in nursing, automotive, electronics, and other disciplines after learning English. All I can say is that, for the past 17 years, I’ve been blessed to work with students who inspire me every day. They are great examples of perseverance.
Since 2003, I have seen an increase not only in the number of Latinx students but also in the number of Latinx in our faculty and staff. We have the responsibility to serve as role models in our community and extend our hands to those who come after us. I have no shame sharing with my students where I came from, the sacrifices my parents and their parents made to make our education possible, because by doing so, they can see themselves reflected in us. We need to send the message that education is accessible and possible to them. I invite all to help students dream big because the sky is the limit. By helping each other, together we can finally say “¡si se pudo!”
• Evelyn Aviles-Davis is a bilingual counselor/professor at Waubonsee Community College.