Inspiring grads: Jeyra Rivera Arocho
Jeyra Rivera Arocho was visiting Chicago in 2017 when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, destroying her home along with thousands of others.
“Everything had been going according to plan — I had done three years of college in Puerto Rico, and I had my first internship and engineering experience,” she said. “Then I came to Chicago in 2017 and was supposed to stay for just five days. I just had a duffle bag of clothes.”
As Arocho found herself displaced in Chicago, she knew she didn’t want to give up on her dream of becoming an engineer, so she decided to transfer colleges. But with that decision came many challenges.
“English is not my first language, and there was a huge cultural clash,” she said. “Getting accustomed to Chicago — and the weather after living on an island — was hard at the beginning, and I was alone here. It was a huge transition for me.”
She started her studies at UIC in the spring of 2018, but soon found herself homeless. She ended up on academic probation and considered dropping out of school.
“That was very hard,” she said. “School was not my priority — I was just trying to find a place to spend the night each day. It really took a toll on my academics.”
Arocho previously had spent a lot of time studying in a space provided by the UIC Equity and Inclusion in Engineering Program, but as her focus shifted to finding secure housing, she spent less time there. The program director, Gerry Smith, noticed her absence and emailed her to see how she was doing. Arocho told him about her situation, and he and Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services program staff members helped her find resources to assist her with her financial and academic struggles.
“If it wasn’t for them, I would have dropped out,” she said.
Arocho has dreamed about becoming a mechanical engineer since she was a child, inspired by her mom.
“I was raised by a single mom who’s a civil engineer, and I had to go to college with her when I was growing up,” Arocho said. “Seeing her journey firsthand definitely showed me that if my mom made it working full time, having a kid and going to school full time, I can get through this, too.”
After her graduation this May, Arocho will begin her new job as a plumbing engineer at CannonDesign in Chicago.
“Being a woman in STEM is very challenging but so rewarding,” she said. “It really takes a lot of courage, curiosity and resilience because you are in a male-dominated field.”
Her advice to other students who are struggling on their path to graduation: seek out support.
“Find your village,” she said. “Be proactive and say, ‘Hey, this is going on, can you help me?’ Find people who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room.”
Arocho has been finishing up her online coursework from Pennsylvania, where she’s staying with family. She’s excited to celebrate the culmination of seven years of hard work as she receives her engineering degree.
“It doesn’t feel real — I’ve struggled for so many years trying to accomplish this,” she said. “And not only that, but to already have a full-time job secured in the middle of a pandemic — I’m beyond blessed, and I’m speechless.”