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DeKalb High School graduate is ready to see the world

John Armenta takes a picture with his mom Noemí Hernandez at his high school graduation from DeKalb High School.
Noemí Hernandez
John Armenta takes a picture with his mom Noemí Hernandez at his high school graduation from DeKalb High School.

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Some students across the country are leaving home for the first time to attend college. John Armenta, a DeKalb High School graduate of the class of 2022 will be among them. The first-generation student is going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for him it means more than just another set of four walls.

“I'm 18, I'm ready to see the world, man,” Armenta said.

It’s a big step for the Cortland teen, where much of high school was spent at home attending class over a computer screen in his bedroom with a lot of uncertainty.

“I remember asking my math teacher and I was like, 'I don't understand how to do this math problem,'” Armenta recalled. “He's like, ‘You know what, John? Seeing as the world's ending, you can skip that problem.’”

It was an uphill battle, and sometimes he felt burnt out, but he thinks it has prepared him for his next chapter.

"There's an honor in the struggle,” Armenta said. “There's an honor and being like, 'I don't know what the heck I'm doing.'" "I think it's honorable to even while you're struggling, you still keep going at it, you know, just not giving up.”

He earned enough aid and scholarships to cover the cost of college. He said his Latino background gave him an edge when applying for funding, but he’s also a really good student. He ranked high in his class and his grade point average is above 4.0.

It provides him with comfort knowing he won’t have to worry about money.

“I can really focus on my education without being like, 'Oh, yikes, I have to pay a loan,'” he said. “Especially, in my situation, taking out a loan that's not really something you'll be able to pay back in a lifetime.”

Armenta is the youngest of five and lives with his mom who works in food service in the DeKalb school district. He’s worked in the district’s IT department since his junior year.

He said striving for excellence academically has always been a big part of who he is.

“Having invested so much of my self-worth in school is a good motivator for trying to succeed,” he said. “And also, there's the other side, the non-greedy side of things, is the fact that like, well, I don't really want to live in this house, like for the rest of my life, so maybe I should do something about it.”

His drive is something he gets from his mom, Noemi Hernandez. WNIJ featured Hernandez on a story about finding local resources to access food.

He said, “She's the most motivated person I know, period.” “Like when she says she is going to do something, she gets it done. I like to think that I got it from her. And I don't actually know a whole lot of people who are like that. And that's one of the things that my mom, like really drilled into me as a kid is that if you say, you're going to do something, you had better do it.”

Hernandez said she felt a sense of gratitude when she visited the U of I campus with her son in the spring.

“I touched the walls with my hands, and I said, ‘Thank you God.’ There’s a statue, they call it the Alma Mater, but for me it symbolizes wisdom and I almost wanted to cry.”

Armenta felt some cultural shock during that visit, not recognizing many students like him.

“It's kind of nuts, because there are so many white and Asian folks there, but I don't remember seeing like a single Hispanic person there,” he said of his tour.

In 2021, the Hispanic population at U of I was around 11 percent. DeKalb High School’s Hispanic population was around 30 percent.

Armenta is planning to major in Biology with a minor in French. Biology is tied to his passion for the environment, which he discovered while living in DeKalb during long bike rides along the Kishwaukee River.

“And just seeing nature firsthand, I would say was very, very influential,” he said. “It was my coming of age. So when, when I took my lengthy bike rides, I remember being like, ‘Wow, this is really, really cool.’ And it saddened me for a while that people were destroying this out of, you know, greed. So that's kind of the motivation behind wanting to become like a person at the EPA.”

He’s also interested in urban planning and increasing mass transportation to reduce reliance on cars. He said growing up in Cortland, he felt sometimes isolated without access to reliable public transportation.

“You know, I'm kind of wealthy in the mind, and having food on the table, but I'm not wealthy enough that I should have like a car or something, he said. “So, all these people kind of take cars for granted.”

At U of I, Armenta will be walking to class. In the meantime, he’s enjoying his last days at home spending time with friends and family, playing video games, his guitar, and rocking out to Metallica.

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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.