Monica Figueroa finds her way to Harvard. Her father pointed the way. Then he was deported, and killed.

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Monica Figueroa was the keynote speaker at the DREAM Iowa 2021 Youth Leadership Summit at ISU. Photo Tar Macias / Hola Iowa
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By Dolores Cullen, The Storm Lake Times

Storm Lake native Monica Figueroa has just unpacked her things. She’s moved to Cambridge, Mass., ready to start school. If all goes as planned, she’ll have a masters degree from Harvard University in a year.

Too bad her father can’t witness this important step in Monica’s life. He was deported to Mexico a year ago and tragically lost his life, amid the corruption and violence there. He was 50 years old.

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He was the one who planted the idea in Monica’s mind in the first place: Someday make it to Harvard.

The Storm Lake High School and Buena Vista University graduate remembers sitting and watching TV with him when she was in about third grade.

“My dad and I were watching the news about an undocumented girl who had been accepted into Harvard and my dad said, ‘Mira mija, tu tambien podrias hacer eso.’ “Look daughter, you could do that too.”

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Her father’s death has taken an emotional toll. She shares her story in honor of her father’s life and his sacrifice in coming to this country. She also wants to encourage others about the possibilities that exist.

The world of books

The first steps on Monica’s path to Harvard were taken when she was a freshman at SLHS. She met Dr. Melinda Coogan, then professor of biology at BVU, and volunteered to help with wetland research for the summer. The opportunity became a factor in why she was chosen to represent Iowa at the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia after she graduated from high school in 2012.

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A friend she met at camp mentioned a policy conference at Harvard. As a BVU sophomore, she attended the five-day event. “While I was there, I realized I HAD to be there,” she says. She loved the learning environment and yet she felt intimidated. “I can’t go there,” she thought. “The only way I could think of going there was to take the name Harvard away from it.” The lack of confidence, she would learn later, is known as the imposter syndrome.

Her last semester at BVU she studied abroad in Rome. She graduated with a full ride in 2016 with a degree in educational studies.

From there she became a teacher in Colorado with Teach for America. During this time she became motivated to be the teacher she wished she had growing up – a teacher who looked like her and could push her to reach her full potential.

She remembers her first days at East School: “I had a blonde teacher and I had no idea what she was saying.”

English language classes at East and watching PBS Kids at home would aid in her struggle.

In those early years learning was so challenging that she vividly remembers crying as she read the dictionary just to learn new words.

The words would help her discover the world of books, a world she could escape to. “They became my teachers, counselors and friends,” she says.

Now, looking back at high school she remembers what she calls “an unfortunate school culture” where some students weren’t expected to achieve because of who they were.

Her five-year stint with Teach for America was a success. One hundred percent of her kindergartners finished reading at grade level, and 92 percent actually finished reading at or above a first-grade level, with some as high as second grade. Monica didn’t want teaching to become her profession though. She was passionate about education, but she was most interested in the policy aspect.

Now, after Covid stalled her plans for a year, she’s cast aside the impostor syndrome. She’s situated at Harvard. She’s ready to immerse herself in the masters program in entrepreneurship and leadership.

“I am looking to create tools that foster early literacy skills and encourage healthy coping mechanisms for all children, but particularly for children from underserved communities,” she says.

Citizenship step by step

Monica faintly remembers herself at age five, the year her family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. “We walked a lot,” is all she can recall.

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Her aunt and uncle worked at Tyson and her father moved here following them. In 1999, he brought the rest of the family. Not until about age 14 would she become aware of the magnitude of her journey to America.

When Monica was 16 her family applied for work visas. After three years they would be eligible for residency. She, her mom and brother applied and earned their residency, but they would have to wait four or five more years to apply for citizenship.

Last year everything was lined up for Monica’s citizenship, but frustration was her experience. “I couldn’t even log onto my profile or my account,” she said. “I was on the phone forever. They told me I needed a new password. They told me to send a letter in the mail requesting a password change. Can you believe that?”

Monica was hopeful when Joe Biden became president. “I was hopeful with the new administration,” she said.“I was able to log in in February and it moved so quickly, even with Covid.”

On May 15 she officially became a citizen of the U.S.

A father’s struggle

Her upbeat attitude wouldn’t last long. Her aunt called. Monica’s father had passed away in Mexico, also on May 15.

Juan Figueroa had made the decision to bring his family to the U.S. because of the poverty they experienced in rural Guanajuato. “I remember my brother and I asked for chips and he didn’t have money for that. He felt badly about that. He made the decision to leave.”

Monica Figueroa with her father Juan and brother Angel.

Once in the U.S., Monica described her father as a “very, very hard worker.” She adds, “He did jobs with integrity even if his job was inhumane.” As an undocumented immigrant he took jobs in the poultry industry. “They had to do the worst jobs. Sometimes he got called in at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.,” she said. “One of his jobs was to inject them with hormones. They have to do it really fast as they go past. Once he accidentally injected his hand. It got infected and it swelled like a blown up glove. He kept going to work because he had to. He couldn’t go to the doctor.”

Immigrants carry trauma, she says. Alcohol becomes one way to cope. She knew this was happening to her father. In August 2019, he experienced mental health episodes. “It led to behaviors that were unsafe.”

Juan was arrested for public intoxication and other charges, processed for deportation and was sent back to Guanajuato.

“I tried to reach him,” Monica remembers. “I hoped he could get rehab.” Meanwhile the crime, violence and corruption had escalated, she said. He was shot. She didn’t learn the details.

Juan Figueroa had gone into rehab though. He was an inpatient from January through April. “I spoke to him Mothers Day,” says Monica. Only a few days later he died.

Turning to God

Monica coped by turning to her faith. “During the pandemic I did a lot of healing,” she said. Her contacts at St. Mary’s Church in Storm Lake were supportive. She met with a Christian counselor.

“I’m praying to God for him to work through me, if I can be of use, to help others humbly,” she says.  “I wish to help those who have been in my dad’s place or anyone I can be a benefit to.”

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“Monica is an amazing and deeply spiritual young woman,” says Melinda Coogan. “She has endured many challenges in her young life but through it all has continued to focus on making a positive difference in the lives of everyone she meets.”

The road ahead

Now Monica hopes to develop tools for all children to discover the power and joy that comes from reading, which might mean creating a nonprofit or LLC. “I will also work to develop culturally diverse and inclusive books that promote healthy coping strategies to support the healing process of children who experience trauma,” she says.

Monica’s father can’t be part of her dream come true – her Harvard experience – but she hopes to honor him with her accomplishments.

“I’m so grateful he found what this country has to offer and he chose to bring us here,” she says. “Even though our country has problems it is better than many other countries. I am thankful to have grown up here.”

Monica Figueroa in front of Widener Library on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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