News & Events

Linda Chapa LaVia Named Waubonsee Distinguished Alumnus

headshot of Linda Chapa LaVia
State Representative Linda Chapa LaVia has been named Waubonsee Community College’s Distinguished Alumnus for 2012. Currently in her third term in the Illinois legislature, Rep. Chapa LaVia has dedicated herself to issues of education and veterans’ affairs.

It is said that people can learn more from failure than from success, and State Representative Linda Chapa LaVia points to herself as living proof. By embracing her own personal struggles, Rep. Chapa LaVia has been better able to empathize with and serve her constituents. For all that she has done for the local community and the state, Waubonsee is proud to honor her as the college’s 2012 Distinguished Alumnus.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award is given to a respected Waubonsee alumnus who has demonstrated personal and professional support of the college, its growth and development, and its mission. This honor also recognizes individuals who have documented evidence of a distinguished record in their chosen profession, of contribution and service to their community, as well as demonstration of a continued interest in lifelong learning.

Growing up in east Aurora, Rep. Chapa LaVia enjoyed school but had some difficulties, especially when it came to test taking. She was held back a year in grade school and was told by an eighth grade teacher that she was not smart enough to attend college. Undeterred, she went on to graduate from East Aurora High School at the age of 16.

“I wanted to be a tax attorney and so was driven to finish school quickly and get started in my profession,” Rep. Chapa LaVia said.

A first-generation college student, Rep. Chapa LaVia qualified for the CHANCE program at Northern Illinois University (NIU), and it was there she got her introduction to both her cultural roots and the political system.

A Mexican-American several generations removed from that country, Rep. Chapa LaVia said she enrolled in a Latino Studies course at NIU without even knowing Cinco de Mayo’s significance. But the instructor of the course changed all that, and took the extra step of issuing all of his students a paperback book about the Illinois legislature.

“He made us understand that no matter how large your population or community, without political involvement, people have no voice,” she explained.

Rep. Chapa LaVia’s own voice was only strengthened by her decision to leave NIU and complete the rest of her general education courses at Waubonsee. Not only does she remember the fresh smell of what was then the newly renovated Aurora Campus on Stolp Island, Chapa LaVia also remembers instructors who fueled her passion for journalism at a time when she wanted to be the first female Hispanic news anchor in the area.

“Waubonsee is an amazing community college,” Rep. Chapa LaVia said. “It is a doorway to get to the next level.” 

While she did not end up reporting the news, Rep. Chapa LaVia did decide to report for duty, becoming involved as a cadet in the ROTC program in 1988. “My military service was a tool that allowed me to complete my goal of finishing college, but what I received from it was priceless,” she said.

As part of one momentous year, Rep. Chapa LaVia earned her Associate in Science Degree and completed Army basic training in 1988. She served as a commissioned officer until 1993 and continued her service in the National Guard, where she was a First Lieutenant, until 1998. She also went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rep. Chapa LaVia’s educational and military career have been assets to her since being elected as a representative to the Illinois House in 2002. Currently in her third term representing the 83rd District, she is the highest-ranking member of the elementary and secondary education committee, as well as the vice-chair of the veterans’ affairs committee.

“It’s ironic that with all my struggles, I’m now the head of education in the state,” she said. “But I can relate to these kids. I represent every child trying to learn in those classrooms, and I think, what can I do that will provide a better education right now for those kids?”

It isn’t unusual for Rep. Chapa LaVia to personally escort her interns or other constituents to Waubonsee’s campus to help them start classes.

“I want these students to understand that just because they may be the first in their family to cross the college threshold doesn’t mean they need to be any less aware,” she said. “They are just as powerful if they learn to ask questions.”

Students can now ask questions of their peers in other countries through the United Nations of Youth, which Rep. Chapa LaVia helped create at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in 2010. Through Web conferences, students discuss life at their schools with the hope of solving educational problems that are the same the world over.

Rep. Chapa LaVia has also spent time trying to solve some problems facing veterans while they are away on active duty and also once they are transitioning back to civilian life. She is the only female veteran in the Illinois legislature, and in fact, the first piece of legislation she sponsored helped guarantee that municipal employees who were deployed would have their same position and/or equal pay once they returned home.

“Having worn combat boots myself, I’m able to step into the shoes of these soldiers and get them the services they deserve,” she said.

But of course, the biggest thing anyone deserves is a chance, and that’s a lesson Rep. Chapa LaVia has lived and learned.

"With all of my supposed deficits, I may seem like an anomaly being where I am today, but I don’t think so,” she said. “With just the right bit of coaching, anyone can go on to be the president of the United States.”

Whether or not a bid for the White House is ever in Rep. Chapa LaVia’s own future, she feels like she has more to do. When asked about her biggest accomplishment, she answered, “I haven’t had it yet.”

That has not stopped the accolades, however. Rep. Chapa LaVia has been named one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 under 40” and an East Aurora High School Distinguished Alumna. She has also been honored with the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans Inaugural Semper Fi Award, the Veterans Outreach Program of Illinois Outstanding Veteran Award, the Hesed House Hesed Hero Award and the Illinois Democratic Women Hillary Rodham Clinton Award.