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Cortland teen and his mom break down the good and bad of first semester of college

John Armenta said while his coursework was challenging, the freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found overall he enjoyed his experience.

Last fall WNIJ spoke with the first-generation student and Cortland teen, John Armenta, as he was preparing to go to college. During the winter break, WNIJ caught up with him and his mom to learn about how his first semester away from home was like for both of them.

“My semester had a lot of good," Armenta said. "But it also had plenty of bad if you know what I'm saying."

He said the first D he earned in an exam was a slap in the face.

“And it took a while to come back from." Armenta said. "But the thing and the good parts that that I was referring to, is the fact that I became religious."

He found a spiritual home at the Newman Center, the Catholic ministry on campus. He joined two bible studies, including one in Spanish, and immersed himself in the culture and traditions of the church.

“So that's good. And that's also how I was able to come back from a lot of the bad, because it's like, 'okay, well, I at least I can take solace and in being tight with my Creator,'” he said. "But the bad, that’s chemistry.”

He said he dedicated about four hours a day to the subject, and earned a B, while in biology he earned an A.

In the fall he told WNIJ he was majoring in Biology to pursue a career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Now, he plans on switching his major to French and becoming a French teacher in the future.

“I was just always more of a man of letters than a man of sciences,” he explained.

He’s inspired by his high school French teacher, Madame Nataliya Zimmerman and the learning environment she created in the classroom.

“So, I kind of want to do that for someone, you know," he said. "I think it'd be cool to have to create a community to teach."

And he has his mom’s support. Noemi Hernandez recalled the encouraging words a coworkers made about her son.

“She said, ‘Wow, so young and he already figured out what he wants because very often young people may be on a path, but don’t really know what they want,'” Hernandez said. “'And your son already knows.'"

Living on campus

Regarding his living situation, Armenta said he doesn’t have much communication with his roommate, but he’s okay with that. His biggest challenge was making time to eat during long studying periods.

“You just kind of you kind of accept the reality," he said, "of having to have sleep for dinner, you know, because it's like, you know, this is just a situation of my schedule.”

Armenta says initially he felt lonely at school, but then came to appreciate being independent and autonomous.

“I've made a fair amount of friends," he said. "But, man, this gravy train is just started.”

Creating a new path

For Hernandez, it’s been a period of adjustment to have her youngest son leave the nest. For several weeks she says it was difficult to walk past his room and know that he wasn’t there. A talk with her son one day helped her to shake out of it.

“He said, ‘I’m just like you, Mom,’” she recalled.

“‘Because I know you don’t sit with your doubts, you look for the help that you need until you get ahead. And that’s the way I am.’ And when he told me that, it was my cure.”

She realized the son she raised was mature and intelligent, capable of striving on his own.

It’s also been a season of ploughing new paths for Hernandez. After several years serving meals in a school cafeteria, she’s now a teacher’s assistant.

To work in a classroom has been a childhood dream.

"For the age that I have, it’s a marvelous thing," she said. "And now I feel it’s never too late to achieve the things you want in life.”

In addition to "Mom," Hernandez now responds to another name: "Maestra," or teacher, by her students.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.