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JJC Alumni: Joaquin Cuevas

Lockport native Joaquin Cuevas is a 2013 graduate of the JJC automotive program, a career he knew he wanted to pursue since he was very young. What he didn't imagine was that JJC would put him on a path to complete his associate degree, bachelor's degree, and then land a job at Toyota National Headquarters in California.

Fact 1: Cuevas has been working on cars since a very young age.

Working in the automotive field runs in Cuevas' family.  His dad is an automotive technician, and he remembers learning automotive work on his uncle's 1970 Monte Carlo.  "At the age of 13, I bought my first broken car to fix and sell," he said. "After seeing how much money could be made doing something I was passionate about, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the automotive industry. JJC was the perfect place to start."

Fact 2: He remembers a moment as a JJC student that changed his life.

Cuevas is a first-generation college student, and from getting into JJC to navigating classes, he mostly had to figure things out on his own. He recalls that he never thought much about a plan for his life after JJC. But one moment changed that.

"One morning, Mr. Jim Coleman [automotive program adviser] pulled me aside after class and informed me that I had been awarded a scholarship I had applied for," Cuevas said. "Additionally, he informed me that in honor of Jon Rau, a former JJC instructor who had recently passed away, there was going to be a Jon Rau Memorial Scholarship that would be awarded to the top automotive student. He told me that I was awarded that scholarship, too. I was caught off guard, since I was relatively new and this was awarded to one person out of the entire automotive program. I thought to myself, 'Maybe I can be more than a technician.' This was the day I decided that I would continue my education after JJC. I applied for Southern Illinois University that night."

Fact 3: Completing his associate degree at JJC led him to a successful career with Toyota.

Today, Cuevas finds himself playing a vital role in the success of an international automotive manufacturer, working in the technical and information diagnostics group at Toyota National Headquarters in Torrance, California. His role there is to help improve service information by addressing feedback from the field and communicating any issues to the company's counterparts in Japan. He is confident he would not have found such success were it not for the foundation he developed as an automotive student at JJC.

"JJC's automotive program prepared me extremely well for the job I currently have," he said. "Not only did the instructors make sure we learned the technical skills, but they always emphasized the importance of soft skills such as communication, teamwork, customer service, and professionalism. These soft skills are necessary for many jobs, and having the strong technical background helps tremendously with what I review and investigate at work."

Fact 4: He went from a being a student competitor at SkillsUSA to a judge after graduating.

In 2013, Cuevas took first place in the state at SkillsUSA as a student competitor, as many JJC automotive students have done before and after him – a proud legacy of the program's investment in student learning. In 2015, he attended the national Skills USA competition as a judge.

"Judging at SkillsUSA this year was very exciting for me," he said. "It was interesting to be on the other side of that work station, two years later. Having the student perspective fresh in my head was very helpful during the development of our stations."

Cuevas passed along the best advice he could to the students: 1. Read the directions carefully 2. Relax 3. Read the directions carefully!

Fact 5: He has his "dream fleet" of vehicles, but his favorite form of recreation has only one horsepower.

Cuevas said that he never had one dream car, but instead always dreamed of building a dream fleet, which includes:

    • Audi RS5
    • '70 Monte Carlo
    • Datsun 510
    • '96 Impala SS
    • '79 Bronco
    • '69 Beetle
    • Honda S2000
    • Toyota Corona
    • and last but not least, an '85, a '95, and an '05 Silverado (all matching blue pearl)


Though surprisingly, he says, as big of a gearhead as he is, his favorite form of recreational transportation is riding a horse. "I have spent as much time on the back of a horse as I have under the hood of a car," he said. "This was another one of my dad's passions that I grew to love. I have competed in Mexican Rodeo for about 12 years. I have taken a break from it to focus on my career, but I plan to compete again in a couple of years. I have gone fast in cars, and on motorcycles, but I still always say that there is no feeling in the world like going wide open throttle on a horse!"

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JJC Student: Cristina and Michael Hill

Cristina and Michael Hill of Plainfield have been married for ten years, but they have an innocent playfulness between them that makes it seem as though they have never left the honeymoon phase. Both grew up with close family members in the military, which in turn, inspired them to serve for their country. They met while working in the Air Force in 2000. Now, 15 years later, Michael and Cristina are writing a new chapter in their lives together as JJC students.   

How do they balance their responsibilities as parents, students and veterans? The couple's secret is that they do it all together. Below are five reasons the couple believes they are succeeding at JJC.

#1: They both are going back to school because they want to.

Three months after the Hills' second child was born, Cristina and Michael were deployed to Iraq. They didn't return until right before their daughter's first birthday. Being away from their children was not easy for either of them, and it was a turning point for Cristina: she knew she had to retire from the Air Force. "I knew then that it was time to stay home. Children change your whole way of life," she said, adding that while she stayed at home and worked on a military base, she started contemplating a new career in nursing. A few years later, Cristina was surprised when her husband told her that he'd been thinking about pursuing nursing as well. So last year, after Michael retired from the Air Force, the two veterans decided to make their nursing dream a reality by attending JJC. They chose JJC because they'd heard so many great things about the nursing program – and after finding out about all the financial benefits they'd receive from the GI Bill, they knew they'd chosen the right school.

#2: They are taking every class together.

Even though the two have different nursing concentrations (Michael wants to work in the ER, Cristina wants to work in child oncology), so far their class requirements have been the same. The full-time students have taken every class together, starting with their general education credits. The two have an extremely positive outlook on their education, and are taking advantage of being in all their classes together because that just means they will always have a study partner. "We keep each other focused and motivated," Cristina said. "It's actually very beneficial because we're learning the same things so I can explain something to him if he doesn't get it, or vice versa. And we're playful – sometimes one of us will tease the other, saying, 'I'm going to get a better grade than you!' Which really just helps us to study harder. We're very competitive!"

#3: They know it takes hard work to transition from military life to becoming a student – but they don't let the challenges stop them.

Becoming a full-time student has its ups and downs, just like being in the military, according to Michael. Taking classes and studying may seem like it would be easy after being in the military, but Michael said that it definitely takes hard work and determination. "Going back to school changes everything, including your way of thinking. In the military, if you make a mistake, you can get up the next day and try to fix it. In school, your final grade is your final grade." Both Michael and Cristina agreed that discipline is important both in the military and at school. It may be hard on some days, but they don't let the challenges stop them.

#4: JJC faculty and staff have played a vital role in helping the Hills transition back to life as students.

Though it hasn't been an easy journey, and it's been years since either of them have been full-time students, the Hills believe JJC's dedicated faculty and staff are what has really helped them excel. So far, their favorite instructors have been Natural Sciences Professor Sheryl Smithson and Sociology Professor Richard Cotton. "This was a big change for us, and I don't know if other schools are like this, but the faculty and staff here really pushed us and helped us completely change gears," said Michael. Cristina added that it's easy to get one-on-one time with the instructors because of the low teacher-to-student ratio. In addition to Smithson and Cotton, the couple added that Veterans Financial Aid Coordinator Cheryl Hlavac has also been a great influence.

#5: They know they are making a better future for themselves and their children.

The Hills have four children at home aged 14, 11, 6 and 3. "We try to set a good example by keeping our grades up," Cristina said. In addition to their own schoolwork, the Hills find time to help their children with homework, too. Sometimes they even find that they are studying the same things. "Before, our kids thought we were cool because we worked as cops in the military. Now, we're doing homework, just like them," Michael added. "A lot of the time, they tell us – 'hey, I know about science!' and they help us, even though they are a few grades behind." 

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JJC Faculty: Mike Hainzinger

Five Things You Didn't Know About JJC Professor Mike Hainzinger​

Mike Hainzinger of New Lenox is a professor in Joliet Junior College’s English and World Languages Department. Famous for his ‘Chinese with Mike’ YouTube videos and book series, Hainzinger also teaches a Self-Instructional Language Program (SILP) course in Chinese at JJC. Students and community members still have time to register for this course, which begins again in the spring.

Fact #1: Hainzinger started a YouTube channel six years ago called “Chinese with Mike.” More than a million views later, he was offered a book deal last year and is now an author of two Chinese coursebooks.
Joliet Junior College English professor Mike Hainzinger wanted an outlet for teaching Mandarin Chinese, so he started a video project in his garage and posted it on YouTube just for fun​. More than 50 episodes and a million views later, a representative from John Murray Learning, a London-based book publisher, offered Hainzinger a book deal. Now two volumes of “Chinese with Mike: A Coursebook for Absolute Beginners” is available in both the U.K. and U.S. Hainzinger said he never thought his videos would turn into a professional project – he just wanted to share his enthusiasm for the Chinese language. “I started ‘Chinese with Mike,’ because putting something like this online would allow more people to learn and make me feel like my teaching was reaching more people,” he said. “So, I set up a little digital camera, had a whiteboard in my garage, and I thought it would be funny to dress up in a bandana and a Hawaiian shirt with sunglasses. I thought I’d just do a few lessons. At first, it was meant to be a joke – I didn’t think it would take off.”

Fact #2: In August he was featured on the front cover of Publishers Weekly magazine.
Right now, Hainzinger is working on his third coursebook – this one about writing Chinese characters – with a co-author, Northwestern professor Dr. Richard Gu. “The demand for this third book was there because the first books didn’t go into teaching much of the writing,” Hainzinger said. “I met Dr. Gu when he first started coming to JJC to give a final oral examination to our SILP students in the Chinese course. We became friends, and respect each other’s approach to teaching Chinese, which led to our collaboration on this new book.” So far, Hainzinger’s books have seen much success, and he has traveled near and far to promote them. This past August, for example, he was featured on the front and back cover of Publishers Weekly magazine. The weekly publication reaches tens of thousands in the publishing, library and media industries. View a digital copy of the magazine by clicking here​.

Fact #3: He would have never learned how to speak Chinese if he hadn’t decided to teach abroad.
After graduating from college, Hainzinger was given an opportunity to teach English abroad in Taiwan. One of the most difficult parts about being in Taiwan was that he didn’t know how to speak Chinese. “I asked myself, should I continue going around smiling and pointing at things, or take a stab at learning the language?” he said. Hainzinger taught himself Chinese, and practiced with friends until he realized something important: “Learning the language became the main reason I was there,” he said.

Fact #4: As a JJC professor, Hainzinger has been instrumental in JJC’s English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program.
Hainzinger remembers all too well what it was like being a newcomer in a foreign country – so he can relate well to local immigrants and JJC’s international students. When he first started working at JJC, he was teaching ESL to adult students at the City Center Campus part-time. Teaching the language was one thing, but Hainzinger, along with his colleagues Jack Haines and Barb Stanek, knew there needed to be a separate program, one that helped non-native speakers with academic English. After becoming a full-time professor in JJC’s English Department, Hainzinger got together with Haines and Stanek to become a part of developing JJC’s EAP program as it is today. “Since it began in 2010, the program has been getting stronger and we have higher enrollment,” he said. “It’s an excellent program that allows students who previously thought they could never get a college degree because they didn’t have the English skills – it allows them to have a path to get from everyday conversational English to academic English terminology, and discussing more advanced academic topics.”

Fact #5: JJC has always been a big part of Hainzinger’s life.
In addition to teaching at JJC, Hainzinger also takes classes occasionally at the college, and is only five credits away from earning an associate’s degree in general studies. Having grown up in the area, Hainzinger said JJC has been a resource to him since grade school. “I started at JJC when I was nine years old and did a baseball camp. I came here for planetarium shows for field trips as a kid, and took classes as a college student,” he said. “Now that I’m actually teaching here I know that JJC is that place in the community that people can count on for anything they need when it comes to furthering their education or participating in activities. It really holds true to the mission of a community college because it’s accessible to all and a place where we can all develop at a reasonable cost.”

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JJC Student : Sergio Silva and Armindo Goncalves

JJC agriculture students Sergio Silva and Armindo Goncalves have come a long way from home to attend one of the college's hallmark programs. And not just in the sense that they transferred from another community college district that lacked an agriculture program: more accurately, in the sense that they have come nearly halfway around the world from their home country, the island nation of Timor-Leste near Australia, to study at America's first community college.

They came to JJC through the USAID-funded Timor-Leste Hillary Clinton Scholarship Program, an initiative with the goal of giving Timor-Leste natives the opportunity to study in the United States and return to their country to contribute to its economic and social development. Silva and Goncalves are doing just that.

"My hope is to make a difference and transformation, and do whatever it takes to help my people with the knowledge that I've acquired here," said Silva. "I want to help my local farmers make their field operations systems more pragmatic and profitable while at the same time applying the highest technology possible."

Goncalves has similar ambitions, hoping to use his JJC education to transform farming and export/import practices in his home country.

"When I return home, I would like to work to bring our government and farmers together so that our farmers have a better system for selling and hopefully even exporting produce," he said, noting that the country's main agriculture crops are coffee, corn and rice.

"Many farmers right now do not have a good system for selling their produce, and they are discouraged. I want to use my JJC education to help the farmers improve their agriculture technology, and also improve exports.  Right now our country imports so many things, and I believe we could be more sustainable and use the resources we already have."

While both Silva and Goncalves admit that the cultural adjustment has been significant since they came to JJC in October 2014, they both believe their time away from home, getting an education at JJC, will benefit their home community greatly when they are able to return.  

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JJC Student: Matthew Surges

Student Spotlight: Matthew Surges

Matthew Surges is the first person in his family to attend college. The construction management major came to JJC after graduating from Joliet West High School in 2014 to pursue his dreams in the technical field. Today, he’s not only excelling in class – but he’s already living his dream, working as an assistant project engineer with Power Construction Company in Chicago. 

#1: Surges wasn’t always a construction management major. 

In high school, and even partway through college, Surges was thinking about becoming an architect, but everything changed once he became more aware of his other talents. 

“I’ve always been artsy, so that’s why I wanted to pursue architecture,” he said. “But as a kid, I was also very interested in problem solving and figuring out how things worked. Then I took a construction management class at JJC. I realized my brain wasn’t necessarily in the path of designing buildings, but more of knowing how they were built and making sure they were built correctly.”  

Surges credits Architecture Professor Maria Anna Rafac for guiding him through the process of changing his major. She encouraged him to branch out from his comfort zone and follow his heart to a construction management degree. 

#2: Even though he’s still taking classes at JJC, he’s already found a great job in his field. 

Surges accepted a perfect job offer in January – to work for Power Construction Company in Chicago as an APE, or assistant project engineer. Just months ago, Power Construction Company came to JJC, looking for new additions to their team. At first, Surges wasn’t interested, but Rafac encouraged him to go to the company’s presentation anyway because he had nothing to lose. He took Rafac’s advice and was surprised by how fascinated he was with the company. 

“They had a lot of cool projects that caught my eye, so I went home and applied. And now here I am,” he said. In fact, Surges enjoys his job so much that he’s planning his future around it. “My goal right now is to keep building my relationship with Power. I really love the company – everybody is friendly, and very family oriented. I would love to eventually be promoted to a leadership position.” 

Surges works at Power Construction Company during the day and attends JJC at night. Surges plans to graduate in 2017, and then pursue a bachelor’s degree. 

#3: JJC prepared him well for his job. 

On the job, Surges is working on two projects. One includes building catheterization labs, recovery rooms and more for Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. His second project is helping to build a medical office for North Shore University in Niles. Working in the real world has given him a new perspective on the things he has already learned at JJC. 

“I’ve been taking the things I’ve been reading in books and have been able to physically apply it to my job,” he said. “I had my doubts going in about what I was capable of doing, and so far all those doubts I had weren’t even true. I realized I was way more prepared, even after only taking a few classes at JJC.”

#4: The most valuable thing he’s learned while attending JJC is time management. 

In addition to working 40 hours a week, Surges is taking 12-15 credit hours a semester. Although he admitted this is the most demanding thing he’s ever done, he’s learned something from it. 

“You make do with every single minute you have in a day, and you start to prioritize what matters,” he said. 

#5: Surges believes a big part of his success is due in part to the dedicated staff in JJC’s Technical Department.

Surges said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the faculty and staff in JJC’s Technical Department.  

“Your teachers and advisers really do care about what you do in life,” Surges said. “It’s not just about you going there to get a piece of paper – they want you to be successful, and they want to help you get to where you want to go.”

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JJC Student: Kris Dubenic
Student Spotlight: Kris Dubenic

Kris Dubenic of New Lenox is JJC’s first-ever student sustainability worker. Before attending JJC, Dubenic wasn’t sure what he wanted to study – but thanks to a few influential science professors and some self-exploration, he realized his love of nature and the environment. Below, learn five interesting facts about Dubenic and how he discovered his passion at JJC.

Fact #1: Dubenic’s love of nature and sustainability began at JJC.
Dubenic has always loved playing and composing music, but knew he wanted to pursue something else as a career. He chose to attend JJC in 2013 so he could explore other passions - like psychology and environmental science. After taking two science courses, he was sold. Professors John Griffis and Andy O’Neill, Dubenic said, were very influential in his decision to major in environmental science. “What I learned in those professors’ classes really sparked an interest for me in environmental issues,” he said. “I’ve always known about how important taking care of our planet is, but after learning why I should care, it changed everything.” 

Fact #2: Working as the college’s student sustainability worker has helped Dubenic receive hands on experience in his field.
Dubenic started working as the college’s student sustainability worker last year. “At first, my job was about recycling. I was the guy lugging around the huge bags of recycleables on campus. It definitely wasn’t glamorous, but I was making a positive impact on the environment,” he said. “Later, the position changed. It evolved into me having more of a voice in environmental programming at the college.” Some of the efforts Dubenic has been involved in include helping to donate more than 250 pounds of pens and markers that had been recycled on campus, and planning Earth Month activities in April. 

Fact #3: He’s a vegan.
Dubenic made a choice to become a vegan recently – and much of that choice had to do with what he’s learned in his classes at JJC, as well as his own personal research. “After everything I’ve learned, I just feel a stronger connection with all living things, including animals,” Dubenic said. “I also became a vegan because of the profound and overwhelming amount of overall resources and lives that can be spared. I have always loved nature as well, but never knew before how important our actions were to all things on earth.”

Fact #4: Dubenic wants other students to know that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to lead a more sustainable life.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the word “sustainability” also means being fiscally responsible and socially inclusive. Dubenic said students can become more sustainable by making small changes, such as shopping at a local farmers market, or taking a sociology class. “A lot of careers now are becoming more integrated with sustainability, not just the careers in the sciences,” Dubenic said. 

Fact #5: Thanks to JJC, Dubenic knows what he wants to do with his life. 
Dubenic has come a long way from his days as an undecided major in 2013. Today, he is a soon-to-be JJC graduate. After graduating, Dubenic plans to continue studying environmental science at a four-year-university and eventually work in the field. He may end up doing conservation work, or work in government trying to pass environmental legislation, but he will always remember one thing: JJC is where he discovered his passion.  

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JJC Student: Ivan Bew

Five Facts About Ivan Bew

Ivan Bew is JJC's 2016 Commencement student speaker. Learn five interesting facts about the 26-year-old psychology major here:

After coming to JJC, he found that there was a world of possibilities for him.

Ivan Bew remembers days in high school where all he would do was go to class and get home as soon as he could, feeling too shy to get involved with any activities at school.

Today, the JJC psychology major's life is nothing like that. In fact, the list of activities and pursuits Bew is involved in are almost too numerous to mention. "JJC is where I branched out and learned that there were so many options for me," Bew said. "My world suddenly opened up, and I met so many friends."

Since coming to JJC, Bew has worked in the Student ID Office; joined student clubs like Intervarsity, Psychology, American Sign Language, and Comedy; volunteered for extracurricular events like Fosterpalooza; and is part of the Mayor of Joliet's committee for citizens with disabilities.


He lives with a difficult physical disability, but does not let it define him.

Bew does not allow the condition he lives with, spastic cerebral palsy, to hold him back. While daily transportation and other activities can be challenging for him, he learned at JJC that it would not prevent him from getting involved in numerous activities.

"Just getting from place to place is a challenge because I cannot walk as fast as others," Bew said. "Because of my muscle contractions, I am not able to drive a car like the average person. So I depend on public transportation, mostly the PACE bus system."


He has applied for an internship in Washington, D.C. this summer.

Pending acceptance in June, Bew will be going to the nation's capital for a year-and-a-half fellowship with the National Council for Independent Living. In this role, he would be helping teach people with physical disabilities to live successful, independent lives.


His message to his fellow graduates is one of hope and the value of perseverance.

Bew hopes to share with the graduation audience his own story, how not giving up in the face of adversity has made him the person he is today.

"In moments of doubt, I want my fellow graduates to remember their diploma, and recognize that it is more than a piece of paper; it is a symbol of victory," he said. "With hard work, we can all overcome the challenges that we meet."


His long-term career goal is to work with children.

With his psychology major and experience with different jobs and committees, Bew wants to have a career working with children.

He says his experience as a youth counselor at the Joliet Park District showed him that his disability was an opportunity to connect with the children in a unique way.

"My disability was not an impairment at my job but a benefit," he said. "At first the kids were curious about me, but in the long run they listened intently to my instructions and I kept their attention easily. Since the children had never encountered someone with my uniqueness, they were naturally more compassionate and helpful to me which created a better environment for everyone." 

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JJC Staff Spotlight: Martha Villegas Miranda

Five Facts about Martha Villegas Miranda

Martha Villegas Miranda is the Latino Outreach and Retention Specialist in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) at Joliet Junior College. She also works as an adjunct professor in social work at Lewis University. 

Learn five facts about Villegas Miranda and her passion below:

1. Martha Villegas Miranda’s position as Latino Outreach and Retention Specialist is the most rewarding position she has ever had. 

Martha Villegas Miranda defines herself as “a story person.” That’s because she’s not always thinking about the statistics or data. But she can remember each and every one of her students by name – because it is the stories that they tell her about themselves, the stories that remind her all too well of her own childhood, that motivate her to come in to work everyday.

“I believe it’s my purpose and plan in life to work with students and their families, answer their questions, and help them make good, informed decisions about their educational journey,” she said. “I like to change how people see education, show them all the options, let them know I’m here to help, that education can be affordable and accessible, and that they can pursue their dreams. My job is not only about informing but empowering students, families and the community about post-secondary options and beyond.”

2. Just like many of the students Villegas Miranda mentors at JJC, when she was young, she struggled with English as a language barrier in school.

The oldest in a family of five children with Mexican immigrant parents, Villegas Miranda had to be a role model for her younger siblings, so she became accustomed to pushing herself and trying hard at an early age. School was difficult as an English Language Learner (ELL), but she knew she had to keep going. 

She struggled during elementary school, but because of her persistence, a teacher promoted her to honors classes in middle school, which set the path for her to be on a college track. After she graduated high school, she became the first person in her family to go to college.  She navigated the college application and financial aid process on her own. This is part of the reason why she dedicated her career to assisting other first generation, Spanish speaking families by educating them about the differences of college between the U.S. and Latin America.

3. Her high school guidance counselor first suggested a career in the hotel industry – but Villegas Miranda saw a different path for herself.

Knowing that she wanted to go to college, Villegas Miranda first made an appointment with her high school guidance counselor to learn about her college options. Her counselor suggested she work for the hotel industry because she could translate for them – but Villegas Miranda wanted more out of a career than just translating. She wanted to make a difference. Determined to work in politics and social justice, she applied for (and received) a Lewis University scholarship that would pay for the majority of her bachelor’s degree. After Lewis, she received another scholarship, this one giving her a full-ride to the University of Wisconsin for her master’s degree in social work. 

“I like to say that I didn’t chose to work in higher ed – higher ed chose me,” she laughed. “I’m here because of the people who knew me and inspired me, and knew I would work well with college students who shared similar paths as mine. I strongly believe it’s important for students to see professionals in higher education who look like them, speak their language and know their culture in order to validate their experience in college and help them succeed and graduate.”
After working at Lewis for more than 10 years, she was offered a job in Chicago, as Director of Operations for the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute overseeing the operations of their student leadership series across 30 states. Although she enjoyed working nationally empowering thousands of youth towards a path of education, Villegas Miranda realized how much she missed her day-to-day interactions with students.
That’s when her current position opened up at JJC – and she has now been working at the college for nearly three years.

4. She has been to Bolivia 16 times. 

Villegas Miranda was first exposed to volunteering abroad in Bolivia as a student at Lewis University where she volunteered in low-income communities with street children, orphaned children, and within indigenous communities. For 10 years, she spent her entire summers (their winters because they are on the other side of the hemisphere) in Bolivia volunteering, backpacking and reinforcing her Spanish skills. 

“As a Spanish speaking professional in the U.S., it’s important to maintain our Spanish skills by reading, writing and traveling to Spanish speaking countries,” Villegas Miranda added. 

5. She will be pursuing her doctorate degree in the fall. 

In the fall, Villegas Miranda will begin a new educational journey by pursuing her doctorate degree in Educational Leadership for Teaching and Learning at Lewis University, with concentrations in multicultural education, social/ political justice issues. She hopes this experience, which feels like a natural next step, will help her become a more transformative, social justice educator for students, families, and the community at JJC.
One thing is for sure – Villegas Miranda knows she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be. 

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JJC Alumni: Kimberly Minarich

One of the best educational decisions Kimberly Minarich of Morris ever made was to attend Joliet Junior College. And she knows a thing or two about educational decisions – she is a teacher, after all.

Currently a choral music instructor at Monroe Middle School in Wheaton, Minarich said that JJC provided her with so many opportunities – including studying abroad in Austria, performing at Carnegie Hall as a JJC Chamber Singer, and most importantly, discovering that in addition to music, teaching is truly her passion. Here are five things about Kimberly Minarich that might inspire you:


(1) Kimberly Minarich discovered a passion in teaching thanks to a JJC music instructor.

A natural piano player since the age of six, Minarich always knew she'd pursue music as a career. But even though she'd been giving private piano lessons to students since she was in middle school, she never thought she'd end up a teacher.

It wasn't until she was a student at JJC, dead-set on studying music performance, that one of her advisers in the Fine Arts Department, Sue Malmberg, brought up the idea of teaching. She posed the question to Minarich: wouldn't it be a good idea to study music education so that while she pursued her dream of becoming a professional performer, she could teach?

To this day, Minarich believes that Malmberg's advice was one of best she's ever received – not just for her career, but because if she had not gone in that direction, she would have never realized how passionate she truly was about teaching. So passionate, in fact, that she would eventually receive a Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction Award in 2015 (one of the highest honors teachers can receive) as a teacher at Fairmont Elementary School.

"By teaching my kids, I am performing through them," Minarich said. "I love seeing that light bulb turn on and being able to pass on my love of music to them. My kids are always the reason why I work so hard, and I love the challenge."


(2) One of the best parts of Minarich's JJC experience was getting involved with student activities. 

During Minarich's time as a JJC student from 2003 to 2006, she was a part of a number of student activities, including the JJC Chamber Singers, JJC Chorale, Phi Theta Kappa, and she even performed in the pit during a few JJC musicals (to this day, she is still asked to come back and perform in the pit).

Being able to form close relationships with her fellow students and advisers through student activities really amplified her academic experience. Ten years later, those relationships are still going strong, and she still keeps in touch with her advisers to this day.

"The teachers at JJC have a real interest in your life and take the time to help you in setting priorities and accomplish your goals," she said.


(3) She studied abroard in Austria when she was a student at JJC – an experience she'd recommend to any current JJC student.

As a music major, studying abroad in Austria was a great opportunity for Minarich. Not only did she get to travel at an affordable cost, but during her experience she was able to attend operas, learn more about fine-tuning her craft, and perform as an accompanist while she was in the country.


(4) Music is in her blood.

The reason Minarich is so passionate about music is because it's in her blood. As a kid, she and her family formed their own musical ministry and traveled around the local area to perform. Both of her parents were musicians, too, and even though her father never learned to read music, he was a talented pianist who always played by ear.

Recently, Minarich honored her father at a Monroe Middle School benefit. It took hours, but she transcribed one of her father's favorite original compositions and played the song for him at the concert – then she showed him that she'd recorded it, note-for-note, on paper. Minarich said being able to do that for her father was one of the most touching experiences she's ever had as a musician.


(5) She will never forget her first experience as a teacher in a classroom setting.

Minarich's first experience in the classroom came when she was still a student at JJC. Still unsure about teaching, she was asked to assist a choir director at Kevin Grove Middle School in Lockport.

One day, the director was running late. Minarich had to lead the practice all by herself – for the very first time.

"I had all these eyes looking at me, a room full of kids, looking at me for a guidance – and it was up to me, I had to direct them. It was scary, but very rewarding at the same time," she said.

Since that day, Minarich said teaching has come naturally to her, and there's nothing like the feeling of accomplishment once she's made progress with her students.  

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JJC Alumni: Aseneth Ruiz

Aseneth Ruiz is a counselor at Joliet Central High School, where she mentors ESL students – the same school she attended as an ESL student in the late 1990s. After Joliet Central, Ruiz attended Joliet Junior College, where she gained the confidence she needed to succeed.

Here are five facts about JJC alumna Aseneth Ruiz:


(1) She grew up in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico.

Ruiz's parents had accomplished careers back in Mexico: her father, a chemical engineer, and her mother, a nurse. But even though they were successful, they wanted a better life for their family, so they made a big decision to immigrate to the United States. 

Ruiz, a middle child of an older brother and younger sister, was a little nervous about the change. Moving to a country where she didn't know the language was nerve-wracking, but she was also eager to think about the type of life she could lead in the United States.

"It was obviously bittersweet to leave, but I was excited about moving and not knowing what to expect," she said.


(2) She and her family moved to Joliet when she was 15.

Ruiz said it was tough, attending Joliet Central High School as a 15-year-old Mexican immigrant. Being a teenager, learning English, and staying on top of her schoolwork took a ton of energy – but she had help and encouragement from her teachers. One English teacher noticed that she enjoyed reading, even though she was just learning English, so she'd give books to Ruiz to read at home.

Ruiz also credits her Joliet Central teachers for inspiring her to attend JJC.

"A lot of my friends and teachers really pushed me along, and kind of saw that I wanted to go to college," she said. "I relied on my teachers to guide me and answer my questions."


(4) Ruiz benefited from the Project Achieve program while a student at JJC.

When Ruiz began her freshman year at JJC, she had only been living in the United States for three years. Ruiz was a little apprehensive about college, but she knew she wasn't alone.

She took advantage of one of JJC's academic resources, Project Achieve, which allowed her access to free professional tutoring, specialty counseling, and tools that encouraged her to stay in school.

"I feel like Project Achieve really helped me get good grades. I spent a lot of time with them. They were nice people and we had a good relationship. Sometimes it's hard to develop those relationships when you're only there for two years, but they make an effort to be there for you and be involved," she said.


(4) She enjoys being a counselor at Joliet Central High School because she gets to help students that remind her of who she was as a teenager.

After transferring from JJC and getting her bachelor's at Lewis University, Ruiz became a teacher for Plainfield District 202. She enjoyed working with students in the classroom, but felt that something was missing. It was then that she realized her true passion – after she had received so much guidance and help from her counselors, mentors, and teachers, she knew she wanted to do the same. So, she went back to school to get her master's degree in counseling.

Now, as a counselor at Joliet Central, she has truly come full circle. It's especially rewarding, according to Ruiz, to work with students who were just like her as a student.

"I think I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and that feels really good," she said. "I'm doing it for more than just a paycheck – I believe it's my mission to help others. When I run into former students, it's great to see them being successful."


(5) Her advice to new JJC students? Don't be scared.

Ruiz knows starting college can be scary – but she advises them to branch out and be brave.

"Go out of your comfort zone and ask for help," she said. "Be bold – this is your time to learn new things, to meet new people, and to form connections."

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JJC Employee: Jason Sutton

Jason Sutton recently began his first season at JJC as an assistant coach for the JJC cross country team. He's not new to JJC, though: as a former student, he competed on the first-ever JJC cross country team in 2005. Sutton is also a military veteran. Learn more about him in the profile below, and what he hopes to bring to JJC as a coach in the athletic department.

1.)    He's served three tours overseas in the Army.

As a U.S. Army veteran, Sutton has completed two tours in Iraq and one in Qatar as a military policeman. He served as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and team leader for five years.

"One of the greatest things about being in the military is that you learn a lot of discipline and structure," he said. "That translates very well to my job as a JJC athletic coach."

2.)    One tour of duty interrupted his time at JJC, and he came back and made a promise to himself.

When Sutton first came to JJC in 2005 from Galesburg High School and joined the first cross-country team, it wasn't necessarily his dream sport. He originally had his sights set on football. But even after his first tour of duty interrupted his time at JJC, he came back in 2006 with a fresh resolve to improve as a runner. 

"I set a goal for myself to really improve my cardio," Sutton said. "So I worked on staying active all year round, and significantly reduced my mile time." 

His hard work paid off. He went from running a mile in 8-9 minutes to being a 6:30 mile runner, which earned him a chance to run in the NJCAA Division III championship race.

3.)    He's hoping to help motivate his cross country students to succeed with one simple idea.

"It's all about setting a goal for yourself, no matter how small it may be," Sutton said. "If you have a goal in mind, you will always have something to be working toward. Otherwise, as I tell the students, 'why are you doing this?'" 

4.)    He can't wait to see the team grow and expand in future seasons.

Sutton enjoys working alongside head coach Rich McCarthy to shape the cross-country students into competitive athletes. In fact, as their 2016 season recently closed, one student finished 9th in the NJCAA Division III national championship, earning All-American honors. 

"I would love to see us put JJC on the map as a competitive cross-country school," he said. "Significant strides have been made with the team over the last few years, and I really look forward to see where we can take it in the future." 

5.)    He enjoys reading the Harry Potter books.

Sutton says that reading books for fun isn't a common past time for him, but he found that he loved the Harry Potter series.

"What I liked about the Harry Potter books was that they always kept you in suspense that you just wanted to keep on reading," he said. "Every chapter seemed to mean something.  I feel the movies don't do the book justice because they seem to leave out important details!"

For more information about the JJC Cross Country team, visit


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JJC International Student: Victoria Barclay

​For many international students, life can be rough when they first arrive in the U.S. They have to adjust to a new culture, lifestyle, and even a new education system. However, these circumstances did not deter international student Victoria Barclay from attending JJC. In fact, Victoria flourished at JJC, even becoming one of the chemistry program's top students.

Victoria began her journey at JJC in 2014 as an international student from Canada with a GED. She was self-taught leading up to her classes at JJC. Although she initially planned to enter the vet tech program, she soon gained an interest in chemistry after taking a general chemistry class.

"I had never looked at a periodic table, let alone planned to major in chemistry," she said. "But now I want to base my whole career around it. I am so grateful that my professor, Dr. Govoni, shared with me his excitement for chemistry and provided the inspiration for my chosen major."

During her time at JJC, Victoria says that one of the reasons she gained so much confidence was a great relationship with her mentor, Professor Sheryl Smithson.

"She was incredible right from the get-go, she said. "Whether it was a personal or an educational problem. I can go to her," she said. "I can't tell you how amazing that was. Just to be given that one person that you can go to when you don't know anyone. That really made me realize that the benefits of a mentoring relationship."

In addition to being a student, Victoria also worked part time as a tutor in the Tutoring and Learning center on campus. She also received numerous scholarships that helped her along the way financially.

Today, Victoria is transferring her 67 credits and a 4.0 GPA from JJC to a chemical engineering program at Olivet Nazarene University, receiving the highest academic scholarship of $23,000 a year.

See a video of Victoria

Q&A with Victoria Barclay

Q: What made you choose Joliet Junior College as an international student?

A: I choose JJC because I found out that they had a brand-new campus, it was the United States' first community college, and that they had an international program, which hit all my check marks.

Q: What class experience took you by surprise, and why?

A: Math was the class I learned the most in. To be perfectly honest, I had a very vague idea of what algebra was coming into pre-calculus. However, Professor Tuskey was incredible. He is just the boss of math professors! He has a gift for sharing information with students. He doesn't spoon feed it to you. He makes you work for it and I think working for it makes you really learn it. In fact, I am using those skills every day to the course that I am in now. There is just no way I could have done physics, chemistry, or any of it without the skills that Professor Tuskey taught me.

Q: What makes JJC special?

A: The people here. They were just really down to earth and accepting. They wanted to get behind the nontraditional student, which is a little nerve-wracking coming in as an older, returning student with a GED. You are constantly wondering, "Can I do this? Am I capable of this?" However, the people here want you to succeed. It is incredible. It's life changing, really.

Q: What advice do you have for incoming students?

A: My advice would be to ask a lot of questions because the people here are willing to answer them. Use the tutoring services. Whether you're getting straight, A's or whether you're getting straight D's, use the tutoring services. It's not going to ever hurt you. Use all the resources that they have for you here. Because these resources are a gift. You're not always going to be given these types of tools that you can use throughout your life, so take advantage of everything you have here. Apply for scholarships. Attend class. It's worth it and it will pay off.


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JJC Alumni: Chef Paul Bringas

The saying "If you want it, you have to hard work for it" seems like the inspiration that drove Chef Paul Bringas into a career in culinary arts. Starting as a part-time janitor in a restaurant, at 17 years old, he wasted no time getting into the culinary world. From there, he worked his way up the restaurant ladder to become one of the best culinary connoisseurs in the Midwest. Now with over 30 years of experience, Chef Bringas continues to share his passion for cooking by teaching and mentoring students as a professor of Culinary Arts here at JJC. Want to know more about this chef extraordinaire?  Check out our top 10 favorite facts about Chef Bringas.

Click here to watch a short video about Chef Bringas

1.    Bringas comes from a huge family.

Originally from Gary, Indiana, Bringas comes from a family of 15. Yes, you read right, 15: eight brothers and six sisters. 

After living a short time in Gary, his family moved to the Park Ridge neighborhood where he later graduated from Maine South High School.

2.    He got his start at a popular restaurant chain.

Bringas began his culinary career at Red Lobster in Norridge, IL. Although he was hired as a janitor, he quickly discovered his passion for the restaurant industry and his talents in the kitchen. After working his way through various restaurants, hotels and catering he eventually landed another position, as the executive chef at Royal Fox Country Club in St. Charles, where he worked for about 22 years.

3.    He is an award-winning chef.

As a certified executive chef by the American Culinary Federation, Bringas has received numerous awards for his culinary skills including the 2008 Chef of the Year from the ACF Louis Joliet Chapter. He has also served as a President of the Chapter from 2012-2017.

4.    He is an alumnus of JJC.

Before coming to JJC, Bringas had no school-based culinary training. But that all changed when Chef Michael McGreal offered him a position as a staff member.

As he explained, "The first thing McGreal said to me was, "You're a great Chef, but if you really want to be faculty here, you need to earn your degree" Bringas said. "So I knew at that time, it was important for me to get my associate degree, so I enrolled in the Culinary arts program, right here at JJC and discovered what an excellent program we have here, and it was great.'"

After graduating from JJC in 2006, Bringas went on to Governor's State University where he received his B.A in 2013.

5.    He has a big love for pastry arts

"I do have a passion for something besides hot foods cooking, I really enjoy doing pastries," he said. "I don't think that most people know that about me. I would honestly consider myself a pretty good pastry chef. I prepared pastries for 22 years at the country club I worked for; so creating pastries is something I truly enjoy. In fact, I am in the last stage of earning the credential of CWPC (certified working pastry chef) as recognized by the American Culinary Federation.

6.    He coaches the award winning Hot Foods Competition Team.

Bringas coaches the Hot Foods Competition Team, and along with Chef Tim Bucci and Chef Mark Muszynski. The team practices two or three times a week and competes throughout the year in various food competitions.

"The practices are very intense," said Bringas. "The students have to go through a number of skills, knife skills and fabrication skills and then there is the cooking component of it. It's hard work, it takes a lot of dedication from the student members, but it's also very rewarding."

This year alone, the team has won two gold medals, one at the Illinois State Final and the other right here at JJC, where the Regional Championship took place, just a few months ago. The team also competed against 11 other culinary teams from across the nation and again, earned a gold medal.

7.    On his off day, Bringas can be found in his kitchen at home, cooking up some of his and his families favorite dishes, or experimenting on new dishes and techniques

"On Sundays, my wife and I have a traditional Sunday dinner at our house. My kids enjoy it because they are grown and out of the house, so dinner with my family gives us a chance to see each other and catch up. And of course, eat delicious food."

8.    He says one of the best experiences so far at JJC would have to be the move to City Center campus.

"The amount of space we have here is phenomenal. It allows students to have enough room to actually complete a full day of tasks that they need to do in order to be successful in the industry one day. I'm really excited that we have a brand-new Culinary Management program starting in fall 2017. Instructor Eric Bell will teach students the ins and outs of operating our full-service restaurants in addition to the customer service skills, entrepreneurial concepts, and managerial processes involved with restaurant ownership and management. One of the most significant and positively impactful additions to the department has been the addition of a full time operations and procurement manager position, funded from our restaurant revenues. The new culinary facility within the City Center Campus is massive, and because of this, the procurement manager position has been a lifesaver. I've purchased inventory for 30 years for a single operation, but this individual has to source, procure, receive, inventory and distribute supplies over 5 stories each day, including two full functioning restaurant operations, 11 commercial kitchens and for 10 separate Chefs. The workload is similar to what a very large downtown Chicago hotel procurement manager would have to do. Without this position, it would be impossible to operate or teach our students."

9.    Bringas says his overall favorite part about being teacher at JJC is seeing the reaction of students learning a new craft.

"I can't wait to get here in the morning and I hate leaving in the afternoon or evening. I just love the excitement of giving knowledge and technical skills to future generations of culinary students. They are the future of our industry and we truly want to train them to be successful and the best culinarians out there. This is an amazing profession, and I feel extremely fortunate to work at the best facility, with the best and most talented colleagues, in the nation."

10. His advice to aspiring culinary students? Don't be scared.

"For students who are getting into the culinary field, there's many areas and avenues to take with it, at Joliet Junior College we can prepare you for whatever your passion is: You could pursue baking and pastry, cooking and food production, ice carving, cake decorating, catering, administration, culinary management or ownership. Our industry is huge, diverse and extremely exciting, so go for it!"

For more information about Chef Bringas and the Culinary Arts Department, please visit their website at

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JJC Student: Tiffany Votta

Tiffany Votta arrived at Joliet Junior College in the late 1990s eager to learn, craving a new experience and a better life. Little did she know when she first stepped on campus that she would eventually channel her diverse experiences, a journey spanning two decades, into a speech as the 2017 student speaker for JJC's 101st commencement ceremony.  

Watch a short video about Tiffany here

"This is truly a long time coming for me," Votta said. "For most students it's two or three years in the making, but in my case it's been 20 years in the making and it's long overdue."

The Braidwood native and construction management major will advise her fellow graduates that they should never settle in life or be afraid to dream big during JJC's graduation ceremony on Friday, May 12 at 6 p.m. in the JJC Event Center.

For as long as she can remember, Votta said she always knew she wanted to work in construction.

"I remember sitting in front of my old house and watching the ComEd trucks drive by," she said. "My parents told me that the people in the trucks made a good living, and I remember saying I want to grow up and to be one of them."

Votta enrolled as a part-time student at JJC in 1997. While attending classes, she quickly learned that going to school would be life-changing - but it did not come without its challenges.

"When I first started, I would work for seven straight days in 16 hour shifts," she said. "Going to work and school at the same time was very difficult. There were plenty of times that I would have to drop out for a semester or take classes here and there."

During those years, Votta said she often applied for jobs in the construction field without any success.

"I knew I had to do something because I wasn't getting anywhere without a degree or certificate," she said.

That's when she learned about JJC's construction management program.

"One day, I saw this 'Building Workers, Constructing Lives' certificate program ad in the paper and I cut it out and put it on my freezer. Every day I would have to walk by my freezer and see this ad."

For several weeks, Votta contemplated calling to find out more about the program.

"I thought to myself on and off: 'I am going to call this number because this program just seemed too good to be true.' Finally, I called and that's when I met Professor Laura Cotner and Professor Maria Anna Rafac. After that, I went through the interview process, and then I got accepted to the program."

Since then, Votta has experienced a number of personal successes. Not only did she complete her certificate and now her associate degree, but she has also turned her lifelong dream into reality.

"I am proud to say that I am currently working for my dream company, ComEd, as the Overhead Operations Construction & Maintenance Foreman and Senior Planner. This is a dream I couldn't have ever accomplished without JJC."

Today, Votta looks back at her experience and smiles.

"It was never my goal to take so long to get my degree. Life just got in the way. However, I did not let life defeat me. I knew that there was something out there better for me and without JJC, I could have never seen my dreams become reality," she said.

As the student speaker, Votta wants fellow students to take away one thing.

"I want my classmates to know that now is the time to invest in your dreams. Dream hard and dream big. Don't let somebody else be the pilot of your direction. Be the pilot of your own direction."

For more information about Joliet Junior College commencement, visit


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