Joliet Junior College student Thomas Gonzalez has always been in pursuit of a quality education. That’s why he made the hard choice, at age 15, to leave behind his family in Mexico and pursue classes in the United States. Gonzalez has cleared multiple hurdles in the four years since his move, which he’ll address in front of the Class of 2019 as its student commencement speaker on May 17.
Gonzalez, 19, will graduate with associate degrees in both science and in arts, which he accomplished in just two years. Gonzalez’s academic commitment at JJC is symbolic of the journey that brought him to campus.
Born in Chicago, Gonzalez’s family moved to Mexico when he was three. By age 10, Gonzalez knew he was destined to become an engineer. He had a passion for taking toys apart, and building new devices. Yet Gonzalez was uncertain of how his dream would unfold in Mexico.
“Ever since I was in middle school, I knew that the U.S. had better schools and a better education, and if I wanted to have a better future coming to the U.S. would be a good idea,” Gonzalez said.
After months of asking, Gonzalez’s mother agreed to let him to move in with a family member in Morris, Illinois. His sophomore year of high school began in a new place, with no friends and little knowledge of the English language.
“I remember that my first week I got to school, then I got home, and my mom wasn’t there. That first week was really hard. But just the thought that I came here to better my education was what kept me going.”
Gonzalez last saw his family prior to his move in 2015, yet they communicate frequently.
In Morris, it took Gonzalez about six months to settle in. His English improved, he got involved in school activities, and began to make friends. He got a job at Jewel-Osco. Yet as Gonzalez was preparing for his senior year, he had to clear another hurdle. His living situation was no longer viable, and he needed a new place to stay. For a period, it was uncertain where he would live, until Gonzalez was taken in by his biology teacher from junior year, Cecilia Mistretta.
“At that time I was really happy. Everything that seemed was going bad I saw kind of like a light at the end of the challenges. By the start of my senior year, she was always there for me,” said Gonzalez of Mistretta. “She was like my second mom.”
Gonzalez started at Joliet Junior College in July 2017, just one month after graduating high school, and majored in electrical engineering. He took the advice of his high school instructors and not only immersed himself in his studies but in campus life.
“My first week at JJC I joined Student Government, the Business Club, and International Club. I made good friends, and friends for life.”
His involvement in these clubs and others, along with classes, meant long days on campus. Yet Gonzalez found comfort in the campus life and what it had to offer. He has taken advantage of student resources like the Tutoring and Learning Center, and treats the JJC Library as his second home. Outside of campus, he held a part-time job. In summer 2018, Gonzalez increased his semester course load and started to work more hours off campus.
“So I decided to make a daily schedule of my classes, and get rid of all my distractions. And because of that I was able to be very efficient with my time.”
It gave him confidence to take on 19 credit hours in the fall. This semester, he’s taking 25 credit hours. The workload has not come without challenges, but Gonzalez said the hurdles he had to clear in high school have given him the confidence to push through.
“Many people worried about me and said that I was doing too much. They did not understand that all the problems that I went through changed the way that I saw life. I knew that I was capable of doing more. Even though I have gone through many challenges, in the end, I know that this is for my better future and that makes me really happy.”
So what does a student with little free time do when he has some? Gonzalez loves sports like basketball and soccer, which he played in high school. He’s into music, and owns a ukulele. And one activity you might catch him doing on campus: solving Rubik’s cubes. His fastest completion time is just 39 seconds.
“I have a collection of like 30 of them,” he said. “I used to have two Rubik’s cubes in my backpack but they got kind of bulky so I just keep them in my car.”
Gonzalez’s constant pursuit of a quality education took him from Mexico, to Morris, then to JJC. After graduation, he’ll continue his education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’ll major in electrical engineering and minor in physics.
“Everyone will have to face problems and challenges in their life. There will be times where you are going to want to give up,” said Gonzalez. “If you have the desire to overcome these challenges, there will be nothing that will stop you. I had to go through rough times since the age of 15, but what kept me going was my desire to succeed and to become a better person.”
JJC's 103rd Annual Commencement Ceremony is Friday, May 17 at 6 p.m. in the Event Center, 1215 Houbolt Road. Visit the graduation page for more information on the ceremony and tickets.
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