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A Life-Changing Education
05.07.12 |
A first-generation college student who emigrated from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, Luisa Perez ’12 was determined to succeed no matter what obstacle or challenge was placed in her way. On May 12, the first of her many goals will be checked off her list as she completes her bachelor’s degree from Lebanon Valley College.

Perez moved with her parents, Daniel and Maritza Perez, from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. in search of a better life. Her parents found work in Fredericksburg, and the family settled in Lebanon. Speaking little English at that time, Perez and her family sought assistance from the Migrant Education Program, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. There, Perez found important mentoring, translation assistance, and tutoring from a team of volunteers that helped to lay the foundation for educational success. She quickly learned the language and her family came to rely on her to help guide them through life in the U.S.

“Because my parents didn’t speak fluent English, I had to mature at a young age,” Perez said. “At just 13 or 14 years old, I was translating all of their mail, scheduling doctor appointments, helping them get through life in a new country.”

Perez worked hard in school. She became a student of the Lebanon Valley Education Partnership (LVEP), a program of Lebanon Valley College and the Lebanon School District that encourages children in the city of Lebanon to study, stay in school, and aspire to attend college. Perez took it seriously and achieved great success as a high school student, taking Advanced Placement and honors classes and becoming serious about attaining higher education.

“It was easy to keep my focus on my education,” Perez said. “My parents came here for me to get an education; I had no choice but school. My high school peers didn’t all have that mindset; some of them didn’t care about school at all. My parents gave up so much for me – I can’t ignore their struggles. They worked so hard for me to have a better life; I knew I had to make them proud.”

She enrolled at LVC in the fall of 2008 and soon found herself to be living a “double life.” She lived on campus during her freshman year but found herself running home often to shuttle her parents to appointments and provide translation services. During her sophomore year, tragedy struck. Her father was hospitalized and was in a coma for months. It was at this time that Perez really struggled.

“I thought I was going to have to withdraw for that semester,” she said. “Because my parent’s English wasn’t that good – and the hospital staff speaks in so much medical jargon – I was at my mother’s side every time she went to the hospital so that I could translate what the doctors and nurses were saying. The LVC faculty was so understanding and supportive. They worked with me outside of their normal office hours and made sure I didn’t fall behind in class.”

Her father recovered and so did Perez. In addition to maintaining an excellent academic record, she worked hard to increase diversity initiatives on the LVC campus. It wasn’t always easy to be a Latina student, and Perez found it difficult to make friends. But she was proud of her heritage and understood that diversity makes the campus stronger. She founded the group Latinos Unidos, which now has 45 members and hosts a variety of culturally educating events each semester. She was also instrumental in helping Dr. Ivette Guzman-Zavala establish the first-ever Hispanic Heritage Month at the College, which brings Hispanic scholars to campus, shows cultural films, and explores the music, food, and culture of Spanish-speaking countries.

A multicultural mentor and LVEP scholar and mentor, Perez was recently inducted to the Phi Sigma Iota foreign languages honor society. She also served as a volunteer at the Migrant Education Program, helping other younger students to learn the language and negotiate life in a new country.

“This education is going to change my life,” Perez said. “I will be able to do better than my parents, and I’m so grateful that they moved here and enabled this change in my life.”

Perez obtained dual U.S.–Dominican Republic citizenship in 2010, but her parents have decided to retire back to their home in the Dominican Republic, and for that Perez breathes a sigh of relief. She will pursue a master’s degree in higher education administration at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where she won’t have to live the “double life” she lived while an undergraduate.

“The hardest part of being a first-generation student with emigrant parents was balancing school and home,” she said. “I had to be one person at school and one person at home, and I was always on call when my parents needed me.”

Perez hopes to work for a college or university in multicultural affairs, retention, or admissions recruiting. Her focus is to work primarily with students of color to help them to achieve like she was able to at Lebanon Valley.

Perez will finish her degree in Spanish and graduate with 450 others Saturday, May 12, at LVC’s 143rd Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies. For information, visit

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