On the first day he was a United States citizen, Juan C. Perez Munoz quietly celebrated with his family.
On the second day, he returned to the Community College of Rhode Island.
“It was amazing. It was the best feeling you could ever get,” Perez Munoz said. “The next day I was like, ‘I have to go back to school.’”
That was 2013, seven years after he first enrolled at CCRI and more than 15 after his family made a harrowing journey to emigrate from his native Guatemala to the United States. He graduates this year with a degree in General Studies and plans to study criminal justice at Rhode Island College in the fall.
He dedicates his graduation to his wife, 7-year-old son and his parents, who decided to create a new life for the family when he was 9 years old.
“They left everything behind to give us a better now life; now I want to give them something. CCRI has helped me do that,” he said. “This shows them that it was all worth it.”
His early years in Guatemala are never far from Perez Munoz’s mind. He thinks of the one-room house he was raised in, and how water would seep through the roof and into his bed on rainy nights. He remembers eating one meal a day and watching the family struggle.
He remembers his father telling the family they were going to the United States.
“What were we going to do if we stayed? There was no food. There was no job opportunities. There was no way out of poverty,” he said.
The family embarked on a monthlong journey through Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. He rode in packed cars and saw other families give up their dreams. His parents eventually arrived in Providence.
His father worked two jobs and Perez Munoz enrolled in Providence schools. He didn’t speak English and didn’t understand the lifestyle, but he could see his life had changed.
“As soon as you get here you see the houses, the cars. You see it’s so different,” he said.
He made regular appearances on the honor roll during his time at Hope High School. College was something he always wanted, but the promise of financial aid was almost nonexistent for an undocumented student.
He enrolled at CCRI in 2006 and paid out of pocket for two semesters before learning his then-girlfriend was pregnant. He left to work full time at the jewelry manufacturing company his father had opened until 2013, when he learned he had been granted U.S. citizenship.
He immediately reached out to the college and re-enrolled through the Access to Opportunity program.
“I felt so happy to be back at CCRI,” he said.
The biggest challenge to his studies came when his brother was diagnosed with a failing liver in 2015. Perez Munoz took on a bigger workload at the family business and spent days at the hospital by his brother’s side.
“What I remember the most is taking my school books into the intensive care room. I used to sit next to him on the bed and do my homework and prepare for exams,” he said. “Whatever I had to do I did it.”
Graduation was only two semesters away, so Perez Munoz decided to stick with his studies.
“I knew if I dropped out it would have been something that impacted my son later in his life,” Perez Munoz said. “I’m so glad I stayed. I met so many great teachers and great advisers.”
The 2017 graduation will take on extra meaning for Perez Munoz, who will be joined by his sister Julisa, who is 10 years younger and also graduating this year. The two will sit together during commencement.
“She was born here and took advantages of the opportunities she had,” he said. “I’m just so happy she didn’t have to go through everything we had to go through. I’m so proud of her.”