When Grand Rapids Community College holds commencement on April 29, it will be the end of three stressful years for Fabiola Carrillo Esparza. It will also be the culmination of a long-held dream, one that started in 2007.
Back then, Esparza couldn’t join in when her fellow high school seniors talked about their plans.
“For me, it was different,” she said. “The circumstances didn’t allow me to continue school back then. I came with my parents and my brother at the age of 11 years old to the U.S. as tourist visitors. My parents did not come with a plan to stay, but God had different plans for us. Soon after, our visas expired, and we became illegal immigrants.”
Her parents’ hard work kept the family fed and clothed, but they didn’t have the means to send her to college. And her status as an illegal immigrant disqualified her from accessing help by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA.
So after graduation, she got a job making bouquets, which paid enough to meet her personal needs but not enough for college tuition.
She married in 2010 and gave birth to a son. Raising him helped her realize that her dream of attending college was still there – and now there were resources that could help.
“Thankfully, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) started in 2012, and I was able to obtain a work permit,” Esparza said. “I started working at Interpreter Network as an interpreter and office scheduler. In the meantime, we came across Justice for Our Neighbors, an organization that helps low-income families in West Michigan with legal services. I was blessed to obtain my permanent residency, a process that took close to a year.”
After the birth of her daughter, Esparza began working at the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, a coalition of community organizations that educates young children in vulnerable areas of West Michigan. She discovered her passion: teaching. She applied for a T.E.A.C.H scholarship from the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children and started at GRCC in 2019.
While Esparza was excited and thankful to finally pursue her college dream, the past three years have been difficult.
“Being a wife, mother of two young children, and working a part-time job was very difficult,” she said. “It meant going to sleep past midnight to spend some time with my children after work, and then do homework.
“I was exhausted all the time, stressed, and, at times, I felt like giving up.”
But Esparza was surrounded by support: her husband, her parents and GRCC Foundation scholarship donors. She received foundation scholarships that allowed her to be a full-time student this final year.
Esparza shared her story on Friday at the foundation’s Creating Connections gathering, where scholarship recipients meet supporters.
“I want to thank the donors of the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation, who have faith in us and support our education,” she said. “I want you to know that it was a big blessing for me, and I am sure it has been – and will continue to be – for many others.”
Esparza doesn’t regret the “challenging” path she took to college and is excited for commencement.
“This means so much to me and my family,” she said. “I will be doing my internship this summer, God willing, then I hope that in the fall, I can start doing what I love to do: working with children.”
Photo by Andrew Schmidt.