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Harper student finds ‘family’ in scholarship donors

Andrea Perez Chavez talks with Thom Lange, Harper emlployee and donor.

Last year, Andrea Perez Chavez was facing a difficult decision. She could buy a laptop for her early childhood education coursework and online classes at Harper College. Or she could continue to send tuition money home for her sister Arianna to attend high school in Honduras. Andrea couldn’t afford to do both.

Well, she couldn’t afford to do both until she applied for, and received, the Ruth M. Lange Memorial Scholarship through the Harper College Educational Foundation. The scholarship prioritizes ECE students and was started a few years ago by Thom Lange, Harper’s manager of event services, in honor of his mother who worked as a teacher’s aide in elementary school. To help pay for her courses in the ECE degree program, Andrea, 23, has been working as a teaching assistant in area child care centers.

“I was so excited when I found out I got the scholarship,” Andrea said. “It has made a big impact. I don’t have any other sources of financial support.”

It’s not just about money. Andrea’s emotional support system is also fragmented. Although some members of Andrea’s extended family live in the U.S., she is the only member of her nuclear family currently in the country. Her father died in 2021 and her mother and siblings live in Honduras.

A ‘family’ bond

When the foundation connected Andrea with Thom and his wife Carol during the school year, Andrea was excited about the opportunity to express her gratitude in person and heartened to develop a meaningful relationship with them. She and Carol bonded over their shared passion for working with kids, because of Carol’s decades of work in park districts and with preschool-aged children.

“I felt a big connection with Thom and Carol. I saw them more as family,” Andrea said. “They gave me support when I didn’t have anyone.”

During their meeting, Andrea shared her education and career goals. Set to graduate with an Associate in Applied Science Degree in Early Childhood Education this year, she plans to join Harper’s nursing program and become a pediatric nurse – bringing together her interests in the medical and early childhood fields.

“It was surprising how well we connected,” Thom said. “And she woke me up to see how much courage it takes for someone to fly here, be in a new country and pursue your education all by yourself.”

Andrea felt so strongly about her friendship with Thom and Carol that she later invited them to be her guests at Harper’s Commencement ceremony on May 17. Although Thom will be emceeing the event as part of his Harper role, Carol will be in the NOW Center audience and they all plan to meet up afterward. Both are beyond excited to celebrate Andrea’s achievement.

“I had tears in my eyes when she asked me,” said Thom, who has worked at Harper for 22 years. “I know that her father Norge was the impetus for her going to college in the U.S. We are humbled to be there for Andrea, since he can’t be.”

Carol Lange, Andrea Perez Chavez and Thom Lange

After Andrea Perez Chavez (center) received the Ruth M. Lange Memorial Scholarship through the Harper College Educational Foundation, she met donors Carol (left) and Thom Lange (right), who has worked at Harper for 22 years. Andrea felt such a bond with Carol and Thom that she invited them to be her guests at Harper's Commencement ceremony.

From the Bronx to Honduras to Harper

Indeed, Andrea’s parents – Norge and Victoria – each made a huge impact on their daughter. Born in the Bronx, New York, Andrea was brought back to her parents’ native Honduras when she was 1 and grew up in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. She had visited family in the U.S. over the years and decided to move here in 2021.

At the time, Andrea was in her third year of medical school in Honduras, but her father had always encouraged her to pursue her education in the U.S., where he thought there were better opportunities. When Norge died from complications related to COVID-19, she was heartbroken. Seeking a change in her life, Andrea decided to honor his wishes. She told her mother, stepfather Olman and siblings she was going on a trip as part of her grieving process. A day before leaving, she announced to her mom that she wouldn’t be coming back.

“She was very scared for me. I have a history of depression and she was worried about me,” remembered Andrea, who also said that her mother and stepfather helped give her the courage and support to move to the U.S. “She knew I’d be staying with family and it was something I just had to do. She’s very proud of me now, but it was a tough time.”

It didn’t get better right away. Although Andrea discovered her love of working with young children while living in Pennsylvania, she had to take additional jobs to stay afloat. She moved to the Chicago area, was homeless for a few weeks, then lived with her cousins – although the accommodations were far from ideal.

“I was like Harry Potter, sleeping on a mattress under the stairs,” she said, laughing sardonically. “But, really, I had no privacy.”

She got another job in daycare but felt that everyone looked down upon her because she didn’t have a college degree. She dealt with panic attacks and depressive episodes. But Andrea’s outlook began to brighten after she met her boyfriend Reed, a scientist who had taken classes at Harper and suggested it as a potential option for her.

“He provided me such emotional support and told me about Harper and FAFSA,” she said. “Even though I had been a third-year medical student, I wasn’t sure – about paying, about the distance, about everything. But actually, I loved it. Ryan [Wolf], my advisor, and the professors were so supportive.”

Proving the naysayers wrong

Enrolling in the fall of 2022, Andrea took to her courses instantly. She appreciated Harper’s focus on mental health and was able to use some of the resources provided by Harper Wellness. She was able to move into her own apartment in Wheeling, which helped too. Meanwhile, she challenged herself to be as dedicated as possible to her studies. Andrea was thrilled to achieve a 4.0 GPA last semester.

“Harper gave me that sense of, ‘Keep going. We are here to help you’,” Andrea said. “I have learned so much. I’ve also learned that people doubt how smart little kids are. Many of my students are bilingual.”

Andrea can relate because she feels that so many people underestimated her. When discussing what this graduation milestone means to her, she talked about being proud of herself and shared her gratitude for the many people that have supported her. She talked about being sad that she won’t be able to hug her dad. Then her mind turned to the naysayers in her life.

“I want to rub it in the faces of those who doubted me. When people thought about me in Honduras, it was, ‘Oh, she’s depressed, she’s crazy.’ They said I was going to come running home, running back to mom,” Andrea said. “But now it’s become, ‘She’s inspiring. She did it. If she can do it, I can do it.’”

Quite the opposite of “running back to mom,” Andrea’s mother is coming to see her. In the weeks leading up to graduation, Andrea was surprised to learn that Victoria will make the trip north to celebrate her daughter’s achievement. She said her mom wants to see the college that Andrea has been raving about for the past two years. She will be happy to show Victoria around campus and can’t wait for her to meet Thom and Carol – who feel the same way.

“Thanks to them, I managed to achieve this,” she said. “I’m excited for them to meet each other.”

And when Andrea begins her nursing prerequisite courses in the fall, she will have company. Arianna, the sister that Andrea helped support through high school, is set to join her as a Harper student. Arianna plans to study psychology, a decision that was motivated both by seeing her big sister struggle with depression and Andrea’s example of how to help others.

In turn, Thom has inspired Andrea. Just as he created a scholarship in tribute to his mother’s example and support, she hopes to one day create an educational scholarship in her father’s name that will help students like her.

“Andrea is just a positive person. Her outlook is wonderful,” Thom said. “The fact that she most wants to serve others, that’s what it’s about.”

Last Updated: 6/11/24