KALAMAZOO, Mich.—From shy, quiet kid to confident leader, Jessica Cortes has blossomed at Western Michigan University.
"I don't know what my life would have been like if I didn't have the opportunity to come here," she says.
Cortes will graduate Saturday, April 30, with a bachelor's degree in social work. She's continuing her education at Western in the accelerated social work master's degree program, focusing on public policy and administration with a specialization in school social work. It's an area she's gained experience with already volunteering with El Concilio, a nonprofit organization in Kalamazoo serving the Hispanic community.
"I would really love to do social work in a school system," says Cortes. "Whenever I go to tutor at El Concilio, I can really relate to those students because I was a student who struggled. I was in the bottom 10% of my class through elementary; I had the language barrier. And now to be on the other side, I can say, 'I understand your struggle. We can make it out, we just have to work hard.'"
Cortes also completed an internship with Catholic Charities, where she worked with migrant families in West Michigan. The sacrifice those families make for the promise of a better life and better future is something she connects with on a deeply personal level; her own parents immigrated to the United States, working long hours in the fields to provide for her.
"I did one day of work, and (my mother) said, 'This is why I don't want you to do it; this is what we live through on a daily basis, and I would not want you to. That's why you need to go to college,'" Cortes remembers.
A call from Mark Delorey, director of Western's Foundation Scholars Program, made that dream a reality. The program provides a $64,000 full-tuition scholarship to students who have demonstrated resilience and outstanding academic performance in the face of adversity.
"I don't think I would have ever gone to college” without the scholarship, she says. A first-generation college student, the Foundation Scholars Program, along with College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) staff, offered guidance and resources to help Cortes grow both personally and academically, from mentorship to community and mental health support.
"(It) let me know I have a voice and I have the ability to do what I set my mind to do. Because of the support system, I ran for an RSO executive board, I started doing new things. And I feel like if it wasn't for them motivating me to do something different, I wouldn't be involved in everything I am now," she says. "Every single day I'm at Western, there's an impact that someone makes on my life."
Cortes used her voice to speak up for Latinx students on campus, working her way up the executive board of the Latino Student Alliance (LSA) until she became president.
"If it wasn't for LSA, I wouldn't be the leader I am today," she says, having spoken on panels, given presentations and attended conferences with the group. "I've networked with so many community leaders and built really good relationships, and I've grown as an individual as well."
While bittersweet, she's excited to hand the baton to a fellow Foundation Scholar to lead the organization.
"I can't wait to see what they do with LSA, because for me, it was all about using my platform to empower others. That was my vision, and whatever vision (the new president) has, I believe in it fully."
Cortes has had a number of memorable experiences on campus, including being named homecoming royalty in 2021. But none have been more impactful, she says, than El Grito, the culminating event of Hispanic Heritage Month on Western's campus in October 2021. A partnership between LSA, the Western Student Association and Campus Activities Board, the celebration featured dancing, food, music and a fashion show.
"It was the biggest event that I've helped throw, and to see my community come together, that was everything to me," she says.
Above all, Western has empowered Cortes to uplift her community and inspire others to follow her lead. It's something she hopes to instill in the students and families she interacts with in her new job.
"College is an opportunity to further your education, and education is something no one can take away from you."
While her degree will help her enhance the lives of countless others in her community, it will also mean the world to her parents as the dream they had for her so many years ago is realized.
"It means everything. There was a time I wouldn't ever see my parents at all because of how much they worked," she says. "But we understood there was a reason they were doing it, and it was to give us a better way of life. So for me to graduate is a dream for all three of us. They never got the opportunity to study, and to see their sacrifice is what continues to push me in what I do now. So all my success is really for them."
Find more Bronco success stories on the Ready for Success webpage.
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