Three years ago, Monica Chavez didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. But this Dec. 6, she was the first student to graduate with a bachelor’s degree through a program made possible by a partnership between the Centro San Juan Diego and a university in central Mexico, the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP).
Chavez chose to pursue a degree in social work. She bought her computer, and with the assistance of technical support and video tutorials, she learned how to use it. She studied even as she continued to care for her children, the oldest of whom has special needs.
“She is the tip of the arrow,” said Luis Alvarez, director of Hispanic Ministry and Centro San Juan Diego, during her graduation ceremony. Also present at the ceremony were Archbishop Samuel Aquila, the Mexican consul, Jeremías Guzmán Barrera, and 11 staff and directors from UPAEP who came from Puebla.
“It was 13 years ago that the Centro San Juan Diego was established to serve the immigrant Hispanic community — aware of this community’s great potential,” said Archbishop Aquila, speaking in Spanish. “As archbishop of Denver, it gives me tremendous joy to be a witness to the great capacity and effort of the Hispanic community. It brings me joy that as a Church, we walk with Centro San Juan Diego and UPAEP.”
In addition to Chavez, husband and wife team Norma Moreno and Esteban Palafox obtained diplomas in law. They both live in Phoenix, Arizona, and from there, they did their course work as they continued to work at a hair salon.
“Finally all of these years of effort have come to an end!” Moreno said, as Palafox described his graduation as “the best Christmas present.”
In the United States, only 15% of the Hispanic population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Centro San Juan Diego aims to address this need through agreements that enable the Hispanic population of Colorado to gain college degrees. Thus, in 2012, Centro entered into a partnership with UPAEP that is allowing many to enroll in various bachelor’s programs online. Today there are 46 students following in the footsteps of the first graduate.
For Juan Carlos Reyes, director of family services for Hispanic Ministry and director of the UPAEP partnership, the experience of accompanying the students is “a delight.”
“To see their enthusiasm and their determination is for us a motor that simply pushes us forward,” he said.
“Usually, when Hispanics come to the United States as adults, they don’t have going to school on their Plan A list or on their Plan B list,” Reyes explained. “Opportunities like this one remind them that they can reach goals that perhaps they never imagined. This is potential. It’s dynamite.”
Reyes said that thanks to his role accompanying the students at UPAEP, he has “met the best members of the Hispanic community of Denver.”
Effort and perseverance
Chavez has lived in Colorado for 19 years. She always wanted to go to college, but it had never been possible in her home country. In fact, she hadn’t been able to finish high school. Five years ago, she saw an ad in a newspaper that enabled her to get a step closer to her dream, and nothing has stopped her since. She got her high school studies completed, bought a computer and started studying. She chose to take extra courses each quarter so as to finish her studies ahead of her class (two and a half years).
“I worked day and night to do my homework,” she recalled.
Today she dreams of putting her degree at the service of the needy, working in a charity or in a non-profit organization.
Chavez dedicated her degree to her mother, Martha, who died 19 years ago, and her niece, Kendra, who died two years ago.
“I am sure that both of them are celebrating this triumph from heaven,” she said, her voice choked with emotion during her address at her graduation ceremony. “This is an amazing accomplishment, not just for me but for my family. It was everybody’s effort.”
For Móinca Cortiglia, director of academic innovation at the UPAEP, now for the new professionals, a new challenge arises: “to carry out your profession in the world, to give testimony of what has been forged in you, to help the world with learning and dedication.”