The coronavirus pandemic has impacted so many people and changed so many things that it can be easier to process it all in broad terms. In May and June schools and colleges developed plans to honor all of the recent graduates in new ways. Now as the next academic year approaches, schools and colleges are working to find learning solutions for all students. In the larger groups of graduates and students, though, are individual people whose lives have been impacted and plans dramatically changed.
Maria Zarate Espinoza is a first-generation Mexican-American and first-generation college student from Guanajuato, Mexico. She immigrated to Aurora with her parents when she was 5 years old. She graduated from West Aurora High School in 2018 and enrolled at Waubonsee Community College that fall to study science. Early in 2020 she applied to and was accepted into the Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students (PRECS), a paid 10-week biology research program at Parkland College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The program gives students the opportunity to learn laboratory and research skills at the University of Illinois.
Only 10 community college students are selected for this program each year so being chosen “felt surreal” to Espinoza.
“It was a big reminder that anything is truly possible through hard work and dedication. It allows me to demonstrate that young Latinos like myself are eager for knowledge and in search of a higher level of education,” said Espinoza.
Unfortunately, the PRECS program was canceled this year because of the pandemic, leaving Espinoza unable to conduct the research that she had planned to do. Despite this, she is not discouraged.
“Applying for the program alone was already a decision that helped me grow academically and personally. Although I was disappointed that the program was canceled, knowing that I got accepted has boosted my confidence in my education. It has taught me that stepping out of my comfort zone can be scary, but also rewarding,” said Espinoza.
Annabelle Barragan, a Waubonsee student studying business, was on a study abroad program in Canterbury, England this spring when travel restrictions were put in place because of the coronavirus.
Barragan became friends with many students from several other study abroad programs from all around the world. These students began receiving emails from their program managers letting them know that they should be able to finish their program in England. Then one of these students received an email with instructions to return home immediately. Three other students received a similar email the next day. Barragan received instructions to return home a few days later. Over the course of a few days—and just a few days before spring break—this group of students left their study abroad program in England and returned home to six different countries.
Barragan worked two jobs to save the money necessary to get the study abroad experience. Even after that and having the experience cut short, she is glad for it.
“It was a beautiful place. The best part was the cathedral that stood in the middle of the town. It was giant; a castle-like building straight out of the movies. Getting to walk to classes with that in my view was a small but great part of my day while there,” said Barragan.
While the scenery and buildings were a great part of the experience for Barragan, the people she met made it worthwhile.
“Living there gave me the chance to befriend people all across the world. Getting to talk to so many different people and see all the funny and surprising ways we’re all the same. We all made lifelong memories and friends that we never would have made if it were not for the program,” said Barragan.
Espinoza graduated from Waubonsee in May 2020 in the college’s Honors Program and plans to attend North Central College in the fall to pursue a bachelor's degree in behavioral neuroscience and conduct research through other programs. Barragan will graduate from Waubonsee with her associate degree in December.