It seems like things could not be going better for former Joliet Junior College student trustee Brian Herrera. In addition to becoming the first person in his family to walk across a college graduation stage, he was recently named the recipient of the ILACHE Emerging Leader Award and earned one of the best gifts he’s ever received in his life – a full-ride scholarship from Dream.US to complete his bachelor’s degree.
“This has just been so unbelievable,” Herrera said. “I just have to keep my momentum going now, and keep trying to make a difference.”
Earning these two achievements is the perfect way to end his career at JJC, but the political science major said his success has not come easy, and there were times when he thought he wasn’t going to make it.
Herrera first came to the college as an undocumented student and DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals) recipient in 2012. Back then, he didn’t have much direction for his future, and wasn’t expecting to get involved in school.
But after stopping by JJC’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), Herrera received a peer mentor (former student Ana Marchan) who inspired him to study harder and think more seriously about his future. Herrera was also guided by other OMSA advisers, such as Latino Student Support Specialist Martha Villegas Miranda, who encouraged him to get involved in student activities, including leadership opportunities, which eventually led to his nomination as JJC’s student trustee in 2014.
Without the help of OMSA, Herrera’s life would have turned out much differently.
“Those people pushed me to become motivated about school,” he said. “Their support helped me to realize how important being involved is.”
During his year serving for JJC’s board of trustees, Herrera said his most notable accomplishment was helping to pass a new residency requirement, written to reflect ICCB guidelines instead of federal guidelines, that lessened the number of days students needed to live in-district in order to receive in-district tuition.
Herrera wanted to finish his studies at JJC after his time on the board, but his DACA benefits expired, which made it impossible for him to receive financial aid, scholarships, and employment. Herrera felt like he was on top of the world when he was student trustee, but then things started to go astray.
He was determined to finish his degree, though – after serving as an example to all the other students while he was on the board, he knew he couldn’t stop leading by example now.
During this time, he also made it a priority to stay involved in school and work toward his passion of helping other undocumented students like himself. Herrera even became a part of developing a new undocumented student support group called DALE (Dreamers Advancing in Leadership and Education).
In the meantime, Herrera applied for the Dream.US scholarship and found out that he’d been nominated for the Emerging Leader Award, but he didn’t think anything of it at the time.
When he found out he was the recipient of both honors, it was life changing for him.
“I kept thinking, this can’t be real. I asked myself: am I living in a movie or something?” he said.
The reality didn’t start to sink in until he updated his social media accounts with the news, and started getting comments from friends and family.
“Brian is a true example and inspiration to all students,” said Villegas Miranda. “Community colleges are an affordable and accessible pathway to education, in particular for undocumented students like Brian. JJC provided so many excellent resources for him to excel.”
Now, the proud scholarship recipient says he plans to attend DePaul University in Chicago this August, the next step on his journey to becoming a lawyer or politician, specializing in immigration reform. He’s also proud to have won the Emerging Leader Award – an honor bestowed upon a student that demonstrates outstanding leadership skills and presented by the Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education.
“Even though it’s not the end, coming here to JJC has really helped prepare me for my future, and it has helped me grow and mature,” Herrera said. “I really care about this college, and I wouldn’t be who I am without the OMSA office, the amazing professors, all the opportunities… I became the first person in my family to walk across that stage, and now I’m on my way to making my dreams and my parents’ dreams come true.”