Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine

From IWU Magazine, Summer 2014

A Tricky Balance

Luis Cabrales
Cabrales, left, and Stephanie Carlson ’15 were among students participating in IWU’s 2011 MALANA Orientation. Cabrales served as a MALANA orientation leader this past academic year.

If he’s lucky, he gets five hours of sleep a night during the school year. Nearly every day, he fights the urge to nod off in class. Luis Cabrales told his professors he’d do the work and he’d be there for tests, but he might not always be in class. And then he told them why.

 While attending college full-time, Cabrales also manages a full-time, second-shift job, flattening burgers on the grill and salting fries. And when he gets home, he calls his younger siblings in Chicago and helps them with their schoolwork before starting his own. On weekends, he goes home to take care of his father, a diabetic who recently had part of his foot amputated. Luis translates for the Mexican immigrant during his doctors’ visits.

“I’m a parent, and I don’t even have any children,” says Cabrales, who lost his mother at age 11. “But I’ve been doing this for seven years now. I did it all through high school too, so it’s not as much of a toll as it is a routine.”

The 21-year-old is a first-generation Mexican-American from Pilsen, a 95-percent Latino community in the heart of Chicago. Spanish was his first spoken language; he was placed in a bilingual class and learned English in the second grade.

Cabrales was the first in his family to graduate from high school. Strong leadership, community service and academic achievements were factors in his being chosen to receive a Gates Millennium Scholarship that supports his college education.

Although he applied to several schools, after his visit to IWU he knew where he was going. Cabrales laughs about what convinced him.

“The arched windows are pretty great,” he says, while sitting on a sofa below them in the Hansen Student Center. “I told my dad I really loved the windows.” Still, college was an unknown. At first he didn’t realize he had to pick classes, assuming they’d be chosen for him. One early supporter was Meghan Burke, assistant professor of sociology, who assured Cabrales that it was natural for him to feel lost, “which I definitely was.”

His biggest fear was losing his financial support as a Gates Scholar. Still, he had no idea how he’d keep up. He didn’t know how to write an essay and scored a 37 percent on his first paper.

“I’ve never gotten a grade that low in my life,” Cabrales says. “But growing up in Chicago Public Schools, there are some things you don’t learn, like proper English skills and reading at an advanced level.”

Cabrales never considered dropping out.

“If I don’t finish my education, I have nothing to fall back on. I can’t move back in with my family because there’s no room. If I lose my scholarship, I don’t have the means to go back.”

The sociology and international studies major is closing in on a 3.0 grade point average. Vice president of Acacia fraternity, Cabrales has also served as a MALANA orientation leader at IWU. He’s applying to the Peace Corps, taking the first step toward pursuing his dream of building schools in Latin America.

“I want to build schools for women. I want to change the world,” he says. “Any delays will mean I’ll be able to help fewer people. I won’t do that.”

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