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OCC Graduate Recipient of Illinois State Library Spotlight on Achievement Award

Lisette Lopez Photo 

Pictured, from left, are OCC Dean of Instruction Dr. Jeffery Cutchin, Illinois Eastern Community Colleges Literacy Development Center Tutor Vanessa Anderson, who worked with Lopez, Lisette Lopez and OCC President Rodney Ranes.

Lisette Lopez came to this country because her family wanted her to complete her higher education in the United States.

A native of Lima, Peru, Lopez spoke very little English when she, her mother and sister arrived in Flora.

“I could say, ‘hello,’ which I learned in kindergarten, but that was it,” Lopez said. “When I first came here, it was very hard and frustrating. People couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them.”

Four years later, Lopez’s hard work and determination are being rewarded. She recently earned her associate’s degree from Olney Central College and was honored as a recipient of the Illinois State Library Spotlight on Achievement Award. The award recognizes a learner who has made significant measurable strides in learning, who has overcome challenges that might have stopped someone else or whose story is particularly inspiring.

“I am one of just 10 students selected from the thousands of students who applied,” Lopez said. “It is a big opportunity for me.”

Lopez received both a monetary award and a plaque during a May 13 ceremony at the Illinois State Library in Springfield. She also met Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Linda Sargent, Illinois Eastern Community Colleges’ Coordinator of Literacy Development, nominated Lopez for the award.

“We are so proud of her,” said Sargent, who worked with Lopez through the IECC Literacy Development Center, which is housed at Frontier Community College. “When she came to us four years ago, she could barely speak any English. She has dedicated herself to school and she has really done well.”

Initially, Lopez tried to learn English studying at home on her computer.

“I realized it was not enough,” she said. “I asked my aunt if she knew of a program with a tutor.”

They contacted the IECC Literacy Development Center, which arranged for Lopez to meet twice a week with a tutor at the Flora Public Library.

“They started teaching me basic greetings, money and numbers,” Lopez said. “I was really happy when I started learning the first words and I could finally understand.”

As she progressed, Lopez’s second tutor worked with the young woman on improving her grammar.

“I moved on to writing sentences,” Lopez said. “My conversations were getting better and my writing improved.”

When Lopez began a new job and was unable to meet as frequently with her tutor, the pair stayed in contact through email, with Lopez completing assignments at home. They continued working together even when Lopez’s tutor was placed on bed rest during her pregnancy.

“The literacy program was so good for me,” Lopez said. “I learned a lot and I’m still learning. Every day I hear new words I have to look up.”

With her enhanced English skills, Lopez enrolled in classes at OCC three years ago.

“I always liked math and science and I decided to study chemical engineering,” she said. “Taking classes has also helped me with my English.”

Lopez has already been accepted to the University of Illinois in Chicago and is waiting to hear from other schools before making a final decision on where she will transfer this fall. She also has been selected to serve a summer internship in chemical engineering at Hella Electronics Corp. in Flora.

“If you think it is too late to start learning, it is not,” Sargent said. “Lisette serves as an inspiration to show others it can be done. She has shown that with hard work, dedication and someone to believe in you — to show you the gifts you have inside of yourself and to help you bring those out — you can succeed. The literacy program helps students who don’t believe in themselves, who have been told all of their lives they can’t do something, and shows them they can. There are people who are ready for their lives to change. They just need someone to help them make it happen.”

Lopez encourages others not to let obstacles keep them from attaining their goals.

“Sometimes everything looks complicated and hard,” she said. “With a lot of hard work and perseverance, nothing is impossible. If you want to do something, you can.”

In addition to Lopez, an IECC Literacy Development Center tutor was honored during the May 13 ceremony. Jan Herman received the Illinois State Library Spotlight on Service Award, which is presented to literacy volunteer tutors who have shown great dedication as they assist adult learners to reach their reading goals.

“There are only 10 students and 10 volunteers from across the state who receive these awards each year,” Sargent said. “We had two winners last year and two winners this year. I think that says a lot about our program. Our students and volunteers work really hard and we are very proud of them.”

Sargent said the IECC Literacy Development Center always needs additional volunteers.

“I have 150 students and just 43 volunteers,” she said. “It is really easy to become a volunteer and help others. I always say, ‘Become a literacy volunteer, it is life changing.’”

For more information about the IECC Literacy Development Center or to become a volunteer tutor, contact Sargent at 618-847-9158, ext. 4314. 

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