Joserik Figueroa-Duran, an 18-year-old Chicagoan with a love of flying, is one of many students across the Chicago area who hit a low point after the pandemic began. “I think that entire sophomore year, I just did not try at all,” said Figueroa-Duran, who graduated this spring from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School. But soon after, Figueroa-Duran found her way through an aviation program at Olive-Harvey College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago. Figueroa-Duran went on to earn 15 college credits while still in high school and is now headed to a Chicago trade school to become an aircraft mechanic. In her own words, Figueroa-Duran shares how this introduction to aviation changed her life.
During COVID, I was a freshman. And so it was really hard because we were almost done with school, so I was totally unmotivated. And then after that, a lot of things happened — my parents got a divorce, and then my great-grandfather died. So I was just in a really, really bad mental state. So I think that entire sophomore year, I just did not try at all.
I know I failed a lot of my classes, which is bad. But you know, I kind of needed that because I was just not doing well mentally. And then it was kind of after the pandemic restrictions started to get lifted, that I started to come out of my shell. And it was mostly because of the aviation program and everything surrounding that aviation field.
So there’s a program called Young Eagles, basically, people who have their pilot’s license and have airplanes fly little kids around for 15 minutes every month. I started getting really into airplanes, because I was like, ‘Hey, maybe I want to fly an airplane too.’ And once I told my mom that she enrolled me in a program that’s held at Olive Harvey.
After I started the class, I became obsessed with everything — being able to build that thing that flies in the sky, being able to fix it, being able to be its little doctor. If it has any problems, I’ll fix it, and it’ll be able to fly again! It’s so amazing. It’s just a cool concept.
I’m terrified of heights, I’m terrified of just knowing that I’m about to lift off of the ground. But I find some sort of peace and calmness once we’re in the air. And I know that I can’t get to be in the air if I don’t take off.
So I apply that sort of metaphor onto my own life where I know that if I don’t go through all the rough spots, I’m not gonna be able to be up there. I’m not going to be able to be at peace. It’s like a real life thing where you have to go through the hardships to get to the good stuff.
I’m going to the Aviation Institute of Maintenance. AIM on Ashland and Pershing, which is five minutes from my house. So it’s good. AIM and Olive-Harvey’s agreement is that as long as Olive-Harvey teaches the general part, we can transfer all the credits into AIM’s school, and then I’ll just graduate in a year instead of doing two years, and instead of paying a lot of money… which is really exciting.
My mom’s my biggest support, definitely. We have this argument a lot where I [used to] tell her I just wanted to be a kid you know, I wanted to stay in on the weekends, play video games or hang out with my friends. But every single weekend I had an activity to do, whether it was music class, swimming lessons, gymnastics, something at a nature park, you know, I always had something to do. And now that I’m older, I really thank her for that. She’s just always been there for me.
I’m kind of intimidated, but at the same time I’m motivated to show that I can do these things even though I am a woman and I am Latina because you never hear about women like me in these things. So I just don’t know how it’s going to go. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t know if I will have that support or if I will get criticized. It’s so scary to think you know about all these things, but in the end, I’m motivated to show everyone that I can do it — that I will do it in the end.”
Figueroa-Duran told her story to Nereida Moreno, who covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.