How a Latina student found support at Waubonsee to break the cycle and work toward her goals

  • Toni Carillo

    Toni Carillo Courtesy of Waubonsee Community College

 
Submitted by Waubonsee Community College
Posted10/15/2021 6:00 AM

According to a 2019 report by Excelencia in Education's Latinos in Higher Education: Compilation of Fast Facts, half of all Latinos in the U.S. (44%) were the first in their family to attend college as compared to any other ethnic group.

It is not that Latino culture or Latino families do not value education; the vast majority do. Often, the lack of college-going role models in working Latino families is the first challenge among several, multilayered factors preventing student success, including socio-economic disadvantages, clashes between cultural norms, and familial expectations. This leads to a lack of support for most first-generation Latino students who may enroll in college courses but lack the guidance and resources to finish a degree.

 

For Toni Carrillo, a first-generation Latina and a 2021 Waubonsee graduate, Waubonsee stepped in to provide the resources she needed at a critical time when it mattered the most. Carrillo's story is commonly expressed by students who have received help from support made available through the Title V grant. In the excerpt below, Carrillo describes how Waubonsee provided a purpose that cemented her newly found direction in life, and how the college provided her with the funding and financial support necessary for her to graduate.

Toni Carrillo: I was raised in this country but with Mexico's customs. Even though we are a large family, with many cousins (also first-generation American), only less than a handful have gone to college, and only a few enroll long enough to obtain a degree. There wasn't the money nor awareness of any other way to pay for college; females were expected to marry and become stay-at-home moms. I had become a wife and mom by the time I was 20 years old, with only a high school degree, for the next 23 years. I was not prepared, nor expecting, to be divorced at the age of 43, having to rebuild my entire life.

I was extremely blessed to be living in the Waubonsee Community College district as I do not think I could have achieved the achievements I have anywhere else. The personal attention I received, feeling as if every single staff/faculty member I engaged with genuinely cared about my success, was utterly unexpected. I was scared, nervous, and felt utterly inadequate, to say the least.

Being newly divorced with a 13-year-old daughter to get through the aftereffects of a rough divorce was emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially draining for me. Waubonsee stepped right in and helped me relieve some of that by offering me the financial help to pay for my classes and hiring me as a federal work-study student, which gave me the "work experience" employers look for in candidates.

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As a work-study student at Waubonsee, I learned how to get comfortable with reaching out for help that I do not think would have been possible if I were not part of the "staff team." I learned along with the other students as I noted their questions and concerns, then saw how the staff could address them. As a result, inadvertently, I would find myself helping other students I would meet in class through their challenges and worries. I would share the knowledge I received from my own experience and what I learned as a student-worker. I knew how it felt to feel ashamed admitting to failings and struggles when it seemed like everybody else around you had their lives all put together. Being a Latina and the first generation to attend college also put me on the same playing field as my peers. Despite our age gap, our challenges were similar. I was able to relate with them as a fellow student and with their parents(s).

Then I was introduced to TRIO Student Services, which was the last step to cement my goal of obtaining that degree. The staff provided me with a safe place to talk about absolutely anything, from work and school problems to my issues at home. No subject was off-limits, and I never felt like my concerns were insignificant or irrelevant. TRIO also gave me experiences outside of school I would not have otherwise done for myself.

With all this aid from Waubonsee, coming at me from directions completely unexpected, much less expected, went a long way into the healing I needed mentally, emotionally and physically. The healthier I became, the more I was able to put into the parenting of my teen daughter while I was studying and working. She got through those tough high school years, and I am proud to say she is now a first-year student at Loyola University Chicago, Arrupe College.

Waubonsee has given me direction and a future I could not have ever imagined possible five years ago. I am still not finished, but now I have the self-confidence to continue my studies at Northeastern Illinois University, contemplating an M.A. in TESOL. I recently started working part-time at Waubonsee as the admissions data administrative assistant.

Waubonsee is one of three colleges in Illinois, and the only community college in the state, to receive a $3 million Title V grant in this funding cycle. The award funding expands educational opportunities for Hispanic and low-income students. Additionally, the grant will enhance the transition from high school to college through dedicated academic advisers, increase student participation in financial literacy education and work-based learning, and create programs for Waubonsee employees to increase cultural competencies. This is the third time the college has received a Title V grant from the Department of Education.

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