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Mario Velazquez, Waubonsee Community College's Featured Student for the month of February, has dedicated his academic career to honoring the memory of his brother, who perished in an apartment building fire in Aurora.

Waubonsee Student Mario Velazquez Dedicates Success to Brother Who Perished in Aurora Fire

Mario Velazquez doesn’t know how far his college education might take him – or how far, exactly, he will take his college education.

But Velazquez is certain that his time spent at Waubonsee Community College has served as an essential link – “a bridge,” he says – connecting his past and present to the destinations he believes he will reach in the future.

“It’s like a bridge, taking you from where you are to where you want to be,” Velazquez said. “It helped me a lot, to get closer to my future.”

For his achievements and dedication, Waubonsee is pleased to recognize Velazquez as the college’s Featured Student for February.

Velazquez, 23, of Aurora, launched his college career at Waubonsee in 2011, jumping right into a full class schedule packed with classes he needed to move toward his goal of becoming a math teacher.

For Velazquez, that goal was quite extraordinary.

No one in his family, he said, had ever even attended college, much less graduated.

And after high school, Velazquez said he appeared unlikely to be the first in his family to take those steps across the bridge to higher education.

“For almost two years, I dedicated my life to work, without thinking of going to college,” he said.

But his brother, Francisco Marcos, wouldn’t let him walk away from the potential he saw in his younger sibling.

Velazquez said his brother would regularly ask him when he was going back to school.

“My answer always was, ‘I’ll do it next year,’” Velazquez said.

But in 2011, Velazquez’s life was shaken to the core when a fire claimed the lives of his brother, his brother’s wife, Micaela Perez, and two of their children, Jose and Francisco Marcos Jr.

At his brother’s funeral, amid an immense outpouring of support from friends, family and the Aurora community, Velazquez said he vowed to “go back to school and to get a degree no matter what.”

“I was going to do it in memory of my brother,” he said.

Velazquez recognized that the challenge could be daunting. But he also believed that even the largest obstacles can be overcome and most challenging goals achieved through persistence and discipline.

He compared it to training for a long distance run.

“You go step by step, you know?” Velazquez said. “When you’re running, you set a goal, and then you go as far as you can, you get as close as you can.

“But then you pass that goal, and you set a new goal. It’s a beginning, then another beginning, not an end.”

To make his dream real, while continuing to support himself, Velazquez pushed hard, carrying a full load of classes each semester and working 30-40 hours each week as a security officer at Westfield Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.

Last December, Velazquez achieved the first stage of his goal, earning his associate degree from Waubonsee. And along the way, he said his long-term goal also changed, morphing from a desire to teach math to a desire to eventually found and run his own civil engineering firm.

But he’s not even close to finished academically. Velazquez continues to take classes at Waubonsee this spring, to get a head start on his bachelor’s degree, which he intends to earn from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he plans to transfer in the fall.

However, Velazquez’s achievements at Waubonsee have not been limited to solid academic performance and activities in the classroom.

During his time at the college, Velazquez has been heavily involved with the Hispanic student organization Latinos Unidos. During the fall 2013 semester, Velazquez served as the club’s president, and for spring 2014, he was elected vice president.

Velazquez worked through the club to promote a number of initiatives within the community, including helping residents obtain drivers licenses and organizing events to promote cross-cultural understanding at Waubonsee and elsewhere.

“He’s very involved in the community, in the Aurora area,” said Erika Iniguez, Admissions Advisor at Waubonsee and faculty advisor to Latinos Unidos. “He’s recognized the support he received, and he’s always giving back.”

At Waubonsee, Iniguez notes that Velazquez uses his position to urge his fellow students on their own journeys toward their own goals. She said he is always on the lookout for new scholarship opportunities and regularly shares what he has found with other students.

And, given his success in the classroom, she said Velazquez can also be found tutoring other students in math, and particularly calculus.

Iniguez said Velazquez’s success as a student is laudable. But what has really impressed her, she said, is his personal transformation.

“He has always been humble, very down-to-earth,” she said. “And he’s still that. But he has also grown tremendously in confidence, as a public speaker and as a leader.”

She noted that in recent months, Velazquez’s achievements have been recognized by various organizations, including the Aurora Hispanic Heritage Advisory Board.

From here, Velazquez said he is not entirely sure where his academic journey might take him ultimately.

He is fairly confident that he will go on to earn a master’s degree. And he may also set his sights, eventually, on a doctorate degree.

But wherever he goes, Velazquez said, he will believe that Waubonsee played an instrumental role in carrying him there.