It started with one question

Lilly Vasquez“Are you okay?” Three little words that made all the difference.

That’s what Harper Counselor Shari Pergricht asked Lilly Vasquez one day during a counseling appointment. “I just broke down in tears,” recalled Lilly. Lilly had been taking classes sporadically at Harper, as time and money permitted. She could only be away from home for a short period of time without raising her husband’s suspicions. He didn’t approve of her getting an education; he was emotionally, physically and psychologically abusive. Married for 20 years and the mother of three children, Lilly felt trapped.

“Little by little my abuser chipped away at my confidence to the point where I felt I could not survive without him,” recalled Lilly. When Shari heard Lilly’s story, she asked Lilly if she would like help. With Lilly’s permission, Shari referred her to WINGS, a local not-for-profit organization that provides a pathway to independence for adults and children who are escaping from domestic violence and abuse. “The people at WINGS listened and helped me figure out what kind of help I needed,” shared Lilly. “I needed to work on myself. I had low self-confidence and difficulty making decisions.” With the resources she was provided, Lilly came to the conclusion that she needed to get a college education in order to better herself and her family. And she needed to do it quickly if she was going to leave her husband. There was still one big hurdle. She wanted to come to Harper, but she had no idea how to pay for it. At her cousin’s suggestion, she inquired about the Rita and John Canning Women’s Program.

Through the Women’s Program and the Harper College Educational Foundation, Lilly was able to put a plan together and receive a scholarship that is helping her make her dream come true. “I am working on my prerequisites so I can apply for the dental hygiene program next year. It is a well-paying profession and matches my people-person personality. It will also give me a fairly quick path to success since I have left my husband and am on my own,” commented Lilly.

As a community college, Harper serves a wide range of students. We understand there is more to our students than meets the eye, and most of the time we won’t find out what is going on unless we ask. Shari has years of experience working with students as they navigate Harper - after 23 years as a full-time Student Development Counseling faculty member, Shari retired and has been working as an adjunct counselor for the last 4 ½ years. When she meets with a student, she is always assessing the way a student presents him or herself. How do they sound? How do they look? “It is about asking the right question at the right time in order to figure out where the student is at in that moment,” said Shari. One question that Shari often uses to open the door to a conversation with students who are having academic difficulties is, “What is getting in the way of you doing well in school?” Lilly echoed this sentiment, “Students don’t open up about personal issues. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a student.” If a student does disclose personal issues that need to be addressed, Shari noted that Harper’s counselors are available to assist any student and encourages all faculty and staff members to refer students to the Academic Advising and Counseling office.

“Harper is my means to my goal – to be independent, support my family and build a better life for all of us. I am grateful to Harper, WINGS and the Women’s Program, and I am excited for my future.” Lilly is also proud of the example she is setting for her children - all three of them are pursuing their education. Her son was in the Air National Guard and is now taking courses in aeronautics. Her middle daughter is completing her training at Kendall College and has already secured a position at Boka in Chicago. As for her youngest daughter, she is currently enrolled at Harper. “We both attend Harper – we carpool together, we have lunch together. It’s wonderful. My daughter is taking honors classes. I am so proud of her.”

Lilly was touched to hear that Harper was making care kits for WINGS as part of the 50th Anniversary “Doing More Together” Giving Back Initiative. So much so, she wanted to send a message to the volunteers, “What you are doing is a beautiful thing that will definitely touch a woman’s heart and give her the boost of confidence that is much needed in this stage of her life. Thank you.”