True Grit: The Journey of Norma Gregorio-Perez
Sometimes success comes easily. Sometime success is hard-won, earned through perseverance, work, determination, and desire. The term for this success is grit. Meet Norma Gregorio-Perez, true grit personified.
When Norma was two-and-a-half years old, her parents made the journey to the U.S. to find better opportunities for their family. Norma, however, remained in Mexico with relatives until her parents could send for her. She followed them to the U.S. at age 14, enrolling in Sycamore Middle School in winter 2006. “I did not speak much English,” she recalled. “It was hard being in a new school and a new culture. I did not know how the system worked and I could not express basic messages like going to the restroom or getting food at the cafeteria. I wanted to learn English as quickly as possible, mostly because I wanted to be like everyone else. I forced myself to listen to music, watch TV, and study English all the time.”
At Sycamore High School, Norma worked with an English as a Second Language teacher, learning the mechanics of English and working on conversational skills. “The ESL teacher shared information about higher education in the U.S. and vocational training,” she said. Norma enrolled in cosmetology school after high school.
But she wanted more. She wanted to pursue higher education. After completing her cosmetology program, she enrolled at Kish.
“I am an undocumented student and I could not receive any financial aid,” she explained. “I relied on my income, the support of my parents, and payment plans to cover tuition and fees.” She worked as a manicurist after school and on weekends, using her cosmetology skills to fund her larger ambition.
Kish was affordable but more importantly, it gave her the support she needed to transition to being a college student. She stated, “Kish was a good step in my academic career because it exposed me to the demands of college. I did well in my classes, and that made me more confident about transferring to a four-year university. While at Kish I also set high goals for myself and developed studying habits that I maintained even after I left.”
Norma made another change while at Kishwaukee: she got involved. She joined Latinos Unidos, a student organization for Hispanic/Latino students, and eventually became the President. She also joined Student Government Association and was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, serving as the chapter Hallmark Officer. “I forced myself to step outside of my comfort zone. In high school, I was very quiet and did not participate in school activities, partly because of the language barrier. When I enrolled at Kish, I decided I wanted to meet more people and be part of the campus community,” she said. “By the time I graduated, I was more confident speaking to people, participating in class, and taking on leadership roles.”
While at Kish taking her General Education courses, she found her career path, too. “My advisor suggested I work with the Career Counselor,” she said. “I talked about my interests and I completed some assessments. She helped me research various professions based on the assessments I completed. Through that research, I learned about Speech-Language Pathology. I started learning more about the field, and I made my decision to become an SLP.”
Norma graduated from Kishwaukee College magna cum laude in May 2015 and accepted admission as an SLP major at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale in Fall 2015. She faced this new experience head on with a solid foundation to stand on. She said, “I was prepared to transfer. I had an idea of what to expect and I also knew about resources available on campus – like the writing center, which I also visited at Kish very frequently! And I became involved in student organizations at SIU, just like I had at Kish.”
While at SIU-C, she knew with certainty that SLP was the career for her. “I have shadowed Speech-Language Pathologists in multiple areas of service and have also learned that there is a need for bilingual SLPs, which is something I plan to offer in my future clinical practice,” she explained. “My decision to pursue a career as an SLP has been inspired by my personal experiences with communication, but learning about the impact of therapy is an even greater motivation to continue.”
Completing her B.S. in Communication Disorders and Sciences from SIU and walking across the stage at the Carbondale campus in May 2017 was a moment of pride for Norma and her family. But she is not stopping there: becoming an SLP requires a graduate degree. Norma applied to several graduate programs before accepting admission at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall.
Looking back over where she began and the long journey to graduate school, Norma reflected, “During my academic career, I have taken small steps, and it has taken me longer to finish than most people, but I also have accomplished more than I ever imagined when I came to the U.S. eleven years ago. At this point, I feel that everything has been possible – and will continue to work out – because I have worked very hard and had the support of the people I love.”