Jonathan Cifuentes Barrios
Since I was four years old, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I would play with my toys for a couple of days before breaking them to see how they worked. I knew what I wanted to be, but I didn’t always have a clear path to get there. I’m so proud of how far I have come.
I was born and raised in the small city of Villa Lobos 1, Guatemala. It was both a beautiful and challenging experience. I am an only child of a single mother who worked hard to give me a good life. The schools I attended were not always equitable places and couldn’t afford specialized programs like robotics, so I couldn’t do much engineering until I went to technical school, which in Guatemala is similar to the final two years of high school.
In 2015, after finishing one year of technical school, my mom and I received the news that we could move to the United States. My uncle in Chicago had applied for us to join him here fourteen years before, and our permanent residency application was finally approved. Moving was a mix of emotions: I knew I wanted to come to the United States to study and create a better life, but at 17 years old, I wasn’t entirely sure who I was and what I wanted. Starting over was scary, but my mom and I had handled many changes together before, and being with her made the move here a lot easier.
Life was challenging when we arrived in Chicago, and I had to advocate for my Guatemalan credits to transfer. I proudly graduated from ASPIRA Early College High School in 2016, but my college plans came to a halt when I realized I had filled out my first college financial aid application incorrectly. It was right around the time my mother began treatment for cancer. There was no way I was going to ask my mom to figure out how to afford college while she was going through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to get well. I dropped out of college after just two days and decided it was best if I worked to help support my mom.
To say I felt deflated is an understatement. Education was a major reason we came to this country, and I left college after just two days. I knew I had to learn how to navigate college and financial aid the right way. When family and friends mentioned Wright College as an option, I decided it was a great choice for me. It was entirely a coincidence that I chose the City Colleges location known for its engineering program, but I’m so glad I did.
My life changed when I met Dr. Doris Espiritu, the senior advisor to the provost and dean of the Center for Excellence in Computer Science and Engineering. I had been navigating everything on my own until our first meeting where she shared so much helpful information.
From that day on, things changed. I understood what I needed to do, what classes to take, and which professors to connect with. Dr. Espiritu understood that I couldn’t join the guaranteed transfer admissions Engineering Pathway because I had to work to support my family. I would take classes in the morning, spend my afternoons at a part-time job at the bank, and then head to my mom’s job to help her with heavier physical work in the evenings since she was weak from her cancer treatments.
Dr. Espiritu did all she could to include me in the Engineering program, telling me which classes to take and how to strengthen my transfer applications. I can’t tell you how many times I thought about quitting, but with Dr. Espiritu’s help, I pushed on. She also helped me complete my application to the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC)’s Grainger School of Engineering.
The day acceptance letters came out, I think I checked the university portal every thirty minutes. When I read the words “Welcome to Illinois,” I cried at work, grabbed my manager’s phone, and called my mom to tell her, “We did it!”
I started at UIUC in the fall of 2020 and enjoyed my time there so much. I graduated on December 17, 2022, with a job already lined up for after graduation at Eaton Corporation in Wisconsin. When I secured the job, I told my mother that it was time for her to retire. It’s my turn to take care of her.
I truly believe life is less difficult when you’re following your passion. I came to this country because I knew of the opportunities here, and college created even more opportunities. Education didn’t just change my life, but it’s also impacted the lives of my mom and my future children. I’m so grateful to be where I am today, and all of this is possible because I pushed through and received amazing support.