Being a first-generation college student can be daunting. Being a first-generation college graduate is exhilarating. Abel Perez knows this first hand. Now he uses his experience to help and encourage young people today to work hard and better themselves. For this, Perez has been recognized as a Waubonsee Student Success: Featured Alumnus.
College wasn’t spoken about in Perez’ home when he was growing up. He was planning to join the U.S. Marine Corps when he graduated from Aurora Central Catholic High School in 1978. That plan changed and he decided to go to college instead. He registered for classes at Waubonsee and three years later he was the first person in his family to have earned a college degree.
After completing his Associate of Arts degree at Waubonsee in 1981 he transferred to Aurora College (now Aurora University) where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Secondary Physical Education, graduating in 1983.
His first year at Waubonsee was difficult.
“I had to pay my way through college so I worked at Copley Memorial Hospital, both in high school and in college.”
Initially, Perez wanted to be a police officer so he studied criminal justice in the first semester of that first year.
“That was very tough because I was working all the time and studying until one o’clock in the morning. So I fell asleep in classes.”
That led him to switch from criminal justice to a general studies degree, which allowed him to focus on developing critical life skills while earning a degree.
“I learned time management at Waubonsee, which has carried me through to today.”
His time management skills and work ethic paid off for him even before he finished college. One month in 1981 Perez was named “Employee of the Month” at Copley and in 1982 he was the “Employee of the Year.” As great as that was, he wasn’t able to attend the banquet for the presentation. It was during finals week and he was too busy studying.
In addition to studying and working, Perez was a student-athlete. In the fall of 1979, he played on the first soccer team that Waubonsee ever fielded. He was a captain on the team both years at Waubonsee and again his senior year at Aurora College, where he was also an All-Illinois 2nd Team member. In addition to playing at Waubonsee, he started coaching youth during that time and has not stopped since. He is now in his 39th year of coaching, mentoring and helping young people through soccer. He is currently a trainer for the Chicago Rush Soccer Club. Over the years he has coached youth soccer with the Oswego Panthers, the Aurora Kickers, Great Lakes summer soccer camps, Oswegoland Park District, West Chicago High School and Aurora University.
When Perez graduated from college, he intended to be a teacher. He soon learned that “getting a teaching job was hard because of the economy.” In his first year after college, he worked as a substitute teacher while he coached men’s soccer at Aurora University and wrestling at East Aurora High School. Then he worked four years at West Chicago High School in various roles ranging from paraprofessional to an in-school suspension teacher while coaching soccer, wrestling and track. After seeing the reality of the job market in education at that time, Perez left teaching and started working for AT&T. Over the years as a lineman and cable and fiber splicer technician he has been involved in establishing communication networks across the region. For more than 30 years he has been building both underground and aerial telecommunications systems.
Through all of this—working at Copley Hospital, studying at Waubonsee, teaching, coaching and installing lines—he has learned the importance of human connections.
“Know people. Be nice to people. Connections with people will help,” he said.
His advice to students today is simple but important and hard-earned.
“Study well, get involved with activities and the hard work pays off.”
Perez lives in Oswego with his wife of 33 years, Julie. They have two children and two grandchildren.