As Eduardo Aguilar walked down an Omaha Creighton Prep hallway one school day last April, he had no idea a lifelong dream would soon be secured. Counselor Jim Swanson pulled the then-high school senior out of his international relations class on the pretext of seeing how he was doing. It’s something Swanson often did with Aguilar, whose undocumented parents were deported to Mexico when he was about ten. Aguilar lived with Swanson and his family an entire year – one in a succession of homes Aguilar resided in over six years.
The counselor and student talked that spring morning as they had countless times, only this time school president Father Tom Neitzke joined them. The priest shook Aguilar’s hand and invited him into his office, where several adults, including media members, awaited.
“I was confused and shocked,” Aguilar recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”
Creighton University president Father Daniel Hendrickson then informed him he was receiving a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000 funded by donors and the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation.
Cameras captured it all.
“To have that news thrown at me out of nowhere was incredible,” Aguilar said. “I just felt like God answered my prayer because it was always my dream to go to Creighton. I was so happy.
“I still can’t believe it even happened. I’m forever grateful for the scholarship donors and for the people that believed in me.”
KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz, who filed a touching story on him, came away impressed by Aguilar.
“He’s a brilliant and hardworking guy and I feel privileged to have met him and to have highlighted his extraordinary efforts to reach the Mexican-American dream.”
The scholarship came just as Aguilar despaired his dream would go unrealized.
“There weren’t many options for me at that time and I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end of my journey – maybe I’m not going to go to college.’ I was in a bad mood about it that same day.”
After learning his good fortune, he called his parents, Loreny and Jose Aguilar.
“They were extremely excited to hear I’m continuing my education, especially at Creighton University, because they knew from a very young age I wanted to go there, They’re absolutely humbled their son received such a generous gift to attend such a prestigious place and that people believed in their son.
“Even though not having them here physically hurts, they’ve motivated me throughout. They’ve given me words of wisdom and advice. They’ve definitely pushed me to be best that I can.”
Aguilar also appreciates the support he’s received in his folks’ absence, first at Jesuit Academy, then at Prep, and now at CU, where he’s finishing his freshman year. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, who are general laborers in Tijuana, when they got deported. He and his older brother Jose relied on family and friends.
“It was a very traumatizing experience,” Aguilar said. “I felt powerless. It really opened my eyes to the harsh place life can bring you at times. It definitely made me mature a lot faster than my peers.”
Jesuit Academy staff rallied behind him.
“They assured me everything would be okay, I decided I had to kick my academics into gear because it was the only thing to get me ahead without my parents here.”
Three months after that sudden separation, Aguilar and his folks were reunited in Mexico. He lived three years there with them.
“I enjoyed it down there with family. I learned a lot. It really humbled me and made me into the person I am today. Now, I’m just happy to be getting my education. I don’t really care about material possessions.”
By 13, his yearning for America would not be denied.
“I realized in Mexico I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I would here. My mom was very hesitant about me coming back because I was so young. But she agreed. Leaving was very difficult. I came back with a family member. I ended up staying with him for awhile and then i just moved from house to house.
“It’s been a journey.”
Few of his peers at Prep knew his situation.
“The majority of them found out on graduation day, They were surprised because they never saw me upset or sad. I was always smiling, happy. They were astonished I was able to go through all that, but it’s due to the support system I had.”
Prep staff took him under their wing his four years there.
“Jim Swanson has been a great motivator. He and his wife served as my second family. When I needed them the most, they opened the doors to their house to me. I see him as my second father. I have the utmost respect for him and his family.”
Aguilar also grew close to art teacher Jeremy Caniglia
“He left a great impact on me. I still reach out to him.”
Aguilar used art and slam poetry to process and express his intense feelings.
In college, he’s found professors sympathetic to his plight. He calls CU Vice Provost for Enrollment Mary Chase “one of my go-to persons,” adding, “She always checks up on me.”
“It really means a lot to me to have extra structure and support and to know these people actually care and believe I have potential to do something in life,” Aguilar said.
He’s studying international business and corporate law in CU’s 3-3 program, which will allow him to earn an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven. His dream job is with Tesla Motors, which produces mass-market electric cars.
“Renewable energy has always fascinated me and Elon Musk (Tesla founder-CEO) has always been one of my idols.”
Thus far, Aguilar said, “College has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.”
Aguilar hopes his personal story empowers others caught in the immigration vice.
“If this can serve any person going through a similar situation or hardship and help them to succeed, then I’m totally for that.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.