Moraine Valley Community College student Teresa Zuniga accepts her certificate from Kim Hastings, member of the board of trustees, at its June meeting for winning the college’s Paul Simon Student Essay Contest. She also received an honorable mention award from the Illinois Community College Trustees Association.

Moraine Valley Community College student Teresa Zuniga accepts her certificate from Kim Hastings, member of the board of trustees.

Moraine Valley Community College student Teresa Zuniga, of Blue Island, received an Honorable Mention in the Paul Simon Student Essay Contest sponsored by the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. She was presented with a $250 award for educational expenses at the organization’s awards luncheon in Springfield last month.

Zuniga’s essay was nominated by Moraine Valley, which selected hers from among 47 essays to submit into the state contest. The college also awarded her with $500 for educational expenses for the fall semester, and the Board of Trustees recognized her achievement at the June 15 board meeting.

Her 500-word essay on “How My Community College Changed My Life” is a personal tale of the sacrifices she and her fellow students have made to attend college. She credits Moraine Valley with playing a hand in her eventual triumph over her difficult past, but also acknowledges her life has been changed in other subtle, but no less life-altering ways. Zuniga has learned she is never alone in her classroom, and giving her often younger classmates a chance has taught her as much about life as her instructors have. After receiving her associate degree at Moraine Valley, Zuniga plans to transfer to a university to study in the medical field.

“I am a 45 year old mother of five and I have never once felt out of place. I had many preconceived ideas of the students I might run into (young, carefree, limited responsibility 18 and 19 year olds) and I am ashamed that I almost didn’t give many of them a chance. I have learned some 18 year olds have lived a much harder life than I, some 20 year olds have already been deployed twice while in service to our country and some 30 year olds have suffered from homelessness,” Zuniga wrote.

She believes the one constant in her conversations with classmates was the sacrifices they were willing to make for their education. Many worked two jobs like Zuniga, many were single parents, as she is, and many were in difficult situations at home. They were bleary-eyed from working all day or night, taking the bus to school and sharing textbooks. But she credits them for showing up.

“Every single class, every semester, I have had my point of view expanded. I feel a community college encompasses exactly what the name implies. It is a community of young and old, professionals and non-professionals, new students and returning students, hobbyists and career-oriented students, all seeking knowledge, renewal and opportunity. Moraine Valley Community College has taught me to be empathetic, humble and to never judge a book by its cover. We are all seeking acceptance, opportunity and a chance to make a difference. My life may have had its difficulties, but I have learned I am not alone and as I look around my classroom, I do not just see students—I see friends, I see bright futures, I see a community,” Zuniga wrote.

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