In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month*, Google hosted the ‘Pay it Forward’ contest.* In this blog post we’ll have a Q&A with our winners, Oscar Cazalez and Luis Narvaez, showcasing their amazing work that impacts educational access and opportunity for the Hispanic community.
*Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Student Winner: Oscar Cazalez
Based in Chicago, Ill., Oscar is a senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology where he is simultaneously studying toward a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a Master of Science in Finance. This year, Oscar worked with 4 peers to form a scholarship fund for undocumented students who don’t qualify for federal aid or student loans. So far, the fund has raised over $11,000 and multiple grants have already been awarded.
Professional Winner: Luis Narvaez
Also based in Chicago, Luis is the Director of Strategic Projects at Chicago Public Schools. Luis came to the US from Mexico when he was 15 and had to learn English as a second language. In his current role, Luis works to develop initiatives like Bilingual Student Access to College and Career Attainment (BACCA), which brings together elementary, middle and high school counselors, college admissions and financial aid representatives, and members of community based organizations focused on college access for underrepresented populations. Luis is currently working toward his Masters in Educational Leadership.
What would people would be surprised to learn about you?
Oscar: When I tell people my story of how I got to the United States, they are usually surprised. But they are truly surprised when I tell them that I am a first generation college student, play Division III Men’s Soccer for my university, and I am finishing my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration while taking classes for my Master in Science of Finance. I am just one of millions of undocumented students who are doing great work in their respective fields.
Luis: I became a US citizen as soon as I was eligible and have had the chance to travel throughout Latin America, Puerto Rico, and parts of Europe. Traveling is one of my biggest passions and I will continue to travel for as long as I can. My wife and I also have raised a beautiful 4 year old since birth as our foster child and will be adopting him very soon.
It sounds like your work requires a lot of time, dedication, and energy. How do you keep it up?
Oscar: My days are always long and I am stressed almost all the time. But I know the importance of taking care of my mental and physical health. When I am not in soccer season, I go to the gym to relieve my stress; I usually do power lifting. I’m lucky that I live in Chicago because I go biking by the Lake during the summer.
I know many undocumented students are not open about the immigration status but I am not afraid because I know for a fact that if you’re undocumented and attending college, you have worked and sacrificed so much. At the end of the day, my vision and purpose motivate me to keep going.
Luis: The 3 Fs in my life are my backbone. One F is for family – I am blessed to have a very loving and caring wife, who supports my journey and helps me raise our two boys (3 and 4 years of age), and a mother and father who’ve been by my side every step of the way. I am also a man of faith, so that’s the second F; I believe that we are all connected to spiritual powers beyond our understanding and control, and I like to stay in connection with those forces. The third F is for friends who I have always leaned on for support and advice and who cheer me on every step of the way.
What motivates you to do this work? Why do you think it’s important to pay it forward?
Oscar: My younger undocumented peers motivate me because I was once a student who feared going to college due to my immigration status. I was always told if I worked hard, I could go places but I found out that there are more barriers when you’re undocumented. Growing up, others lent me a helping hand, so I am just doing the same thing for others.
Luis: I think we always need to take a look at our accomplishments and achievements, be thankful for our current position, and pay it forward by helping others get to a similar point. Being selfish is the worst path we can take when we reach success. I come from a community where we care for one another, help each other when there’s obstacles in the way, and celebrate others achievements and successes as if they were our own.
Who or what inspires you?
Oscar: My parents are my greatest motivation because they risked everything to give their children a better life and a shot at the American Dream. One day, I want to pay it forward to my parents by buying them a house and helping them financially. It has been a tough journey but I have always let my work ethic speak for itself.
Luis: As a former ESL student who arrived from Mexico at the age of 15 without US citizenship, I give credit for where I am today to all of the educators in high school, undergraduate, and graduate level who believed in me and pushed me to challenge myself.
What’s next for you?
Oscar: My short term goal is to get an internship this upcoming summer and to graduate with a Master of Science in Finance, while continuing to fundraise for the scholarship. Long-term, I plan to work either in banking or the tech sector for about five years before starting my own company. I also want to continue my activist work by creating more resources for students who are in financial need but don’t qualify for aid or loans; motivating students to pursue STEM degrees; and by being a constant advocate for immigrant rights.
Luis: I would like to pursue a PhD. I am very well aware of the lack of educated Latino males in this country and I would like to become a role model for them. I am very interested in pursuing a program in Educational Policy Studies and so I can have positive impact in shaping the future of education in America.