Andrea Aguilera's Story Takes Center Stage at Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation Gala
October 31, 2016 | Chicago, IL
Aguilera, an undocumented DREAMer and Erie House TEAM graduate, inspired attendees with her courage and determination. FILE PHOTO
Andrea Aguilera couldn’t have picked a bigger stage to share a very personal story for the first time. The college sophomore gave a moving address at the second annual Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation Gala before a room filled with philanthropists, elected officials and influencers last month.
“I felt really nervous,” says Aguilera, a DACA recipient who is now a sophomore at Dominican University in River Forest. “That was my first time speaking in public, and people hadn’t heard my story.”
That story—one that chronicled her experiences as an undocumented youth, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who arrived in Chicago when she was just four years old—captivated the crowd at the IUOE Local 399 Banquet Hall in the South Loop.
“Even though I was young, I remember what it was like crossing the border,” she told the audience. “My 11-year-old brother and I went first—without our parents, alone, with two strangers.”
Aguilera went on to reflect on the experience of growing up in Chicago and her earliest awareness of what it meant to be undocumented. She watched as her two older siblings struggled to pay for college, unable to apply for federal aid and further burdened by their family’s financial need. The challenges that she would face were daunting.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but her fortunes began to change when she enrolled in the YOU program at Erie Neighborhood House when she was 14 years old.
“Erie House has been a huge part of my life,” says Aguilera, expressing gratitude for the many ways the organization supported her growth and development. She recalls being particularly interested in Visionaries, a media arts program designed to equip students with skills in graphic design, video production, photography and journalism. “It was all really cool.”
She also participated in the TEAM mentoring program, where she found guidance and support throughout her high school years and as she approached the possibility of attending college.
“My dad and my mom didn’t speak English,” she explains, reflecting on what is a common struggle for so many undocumented youth trying to explore college options. “Erie House came along and helped me.”
Her support network notwithstanding, Aguilera nevertheless remembers being on track to graduate from Ogden International School of Chicago without a clear plan for life post-graduation. So when Erie House director of Expanded Learning Programs for Children and Youth (ELP) called to tell her she had received a generous scholarship offer, she was overjoyed.
Today, Aguilera is on the dean’s list at Dominican University and majoring in sociology. She comes back to Erie House on a regular basis to volunteer as a mentor in the TEAM program. Earlier this year, she was also accepted into the 2016 Dreamers Without Borders delegation, an initiative that creates opportunities for DACA recipients of Mexican origin to explore their native country firsthand and explore its cultural and historical richness.
“Andrea’s story is powerful,” says Erie House executive director Kirstin Chernawsky. “It speaks to the incredible potential that so many undocumented youth possess if given the opportunity. We can’t wait to watch Andrea as she continues to develop as a leader in the community.”
Following her speaking engagement at the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation gala, the importance of sharing her story really began to sink in. “It can impact other people’s lives and encourage them,” she observes.
The gala reportedly raised $400,000 for that evening to benefit a college scholarship fund, paving the way for increased opportunities for youth in the community.
“I want to be able to make my family proud,” Aguilera told the audience during her closing remarks, “and prove to others que si se puede—everything is possible.”