photo of Isai Madriz

Dream big, reach high, for there will be a time someone will see your efforts and provide you the opportunity to show the world your dream.

The straight-line distance from Aurora, Ill. to the Northern Patagonia Ice Field in Chile is slightly more than 6,000 miles. It is nearly 7,500 miles if traveling by land on the shortest route. Such a journey would be an adventure under any circumstances. For Isaí Madriz that journey has been nothing short of remarkable.

Madriz moved to Aurora from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his family in 1997 and graduated from East Aurora High School in 1999. He enrolled at Waubonsee Community College where he was awarded an athletic scholarship for cross country. In addition to cross country and his academics, Madriz played soccer at Waubonsee, as well.

Madriz and his family did not have a great deal of money, but a college education was important to him. So much so that he did everything necessary to maintain his scholarship and get the education he wanted. He didn’t have a car so he did what he had to do to get to class. This included cycling 15 miles on the Virgil L. Gilman Trail from Aurora to Waubonsee’s Sugar Grove Campus, attending class and daily soccer practice and cross country team runs before returning home on his bicycle. 

“You will never waste time with sports and education,” Madriz’ parents always told him.

He took that advice seriously.

In December 2002 Madriz transferred to Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. Not having a car, Madriz again rode his bike. This time from Aurora to Arcata. It took him 11 days.

After earning two bachelor’s degrees (one in zoology and one in marine biology with a minor in scientific diving) from Humboldt in 2007, Madriz continued pedaling. This time, he did so with the intent to give back to a local charity that helped him pay for his undergraduate education. He rode his bike 22,500 miles from Montgomery, Ill. to the southern tip of Argentina, winding along small roads and traversing desert and rainforest, all the while sharing his story with people and raising awareness and funds for the Jesus Guadalupe Foundation, an organization in St. Charles, Ill. which grants scholarships to Latinos.

“I just wanted to give back to those who have helped me so much along the way,” said Madriz.

Equipped only with the things he could carry with him on his bike and $100, he grappled with heat, cold, injuries, illnesses and vehicle traffic. Along the way, he experienced more of the goodness of people while he was working to give back to those who already helped him so much. He slept in his small tent along the sides of roads, but he was also welcomed into the homes of people he met. 

This leg of the larger journey of Madriz’ life took two years. Everywhere he went he talked to local people and media about the importance of higher education. While talking to people about education, he put his to use by volunteering to help researchers working with animals in the countries he traveled through. For example, he worked as a tour guide in a butterfly garden in Monte Verde, Costa Rica, and tracked pumas in Patagonia, Argentina, using forensic entomology to learn their hunting patterns.

After completing this bike expedition, Madriz completed a master’s degree in electron microscopy at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City in 2011.

The next leg of his academic journey began in 2012 at Iowa State University where Madriz completed his doctorate degree in entomology in September 2017. 

Today, Madriz is back in South America in the Aysén region of Chile. He is there as a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. He is studying aquatic insects and the deglaciation of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field. He hikes, packrafts, and, of course, bikes, to remote locations throughout the region to explore the world around him. He arrived in Chile in September of this year and will continue in this fellowship program until June 2018.

His work is the realization of a personal belief that he reflects on every day: “Dream big, reach high, for there will be a time someone will see your efforts and provide you the opportunity to show the world your dream.” 

Madriz has dreamed big and is now able to show the world his dream. Since he is part of a digital storytelling fellowship program, he tells his story and the story of the world around him through photos of his work and his words. He uses every tool available to him to inspire others to pursue their dreams and to get an education.

The lesson he learned from his parents is pretty simple and he has applied it every step—or pedal stroke—of his journey.

“If you are doing anything with sports and education, you can do anything you want. We will never stop you.”

His journey from Guadalajara through Aurora and throughout North, Central, and South America has proven that. Madriz continues to use his education and athleticism to inspire others around the world.

Madriz sees his time at Waubonsee as the start of his academic journey and a critical point in the journey of his life.

“It’s not a dead end. It’s an education,” he said about Waubonsee. 

And, as his parents told him, with an education, you can do anything you want.