Brothers who immigrated to Waukegan from Mexico go from ESL classes to the Ivy League


CHICAGO — This is the story of a family that took a big gamble, immigrating to Waukegan, from a small town in Mexico, all in hopes of a better life.

They arrived with nothing to their name, including any grasp of English.

“I was only ten when I came here. I remember being excited about getting on a school bus because that’s what we had seen in movies back in Mexico,” Irvin Gomez said.

The Gomez brothers quickly learned their ride was going to be far different than the ones they had seen on the big screen.

“We were in ESL classes for several years,” Topiltzin Gomez said. “I had a lot of self-doubt. You see that there are different expectations for what you will accomplish as an ESL kid.”

An unspoken, but very real expectation is that ESL students aren’t always expected to be the strongest scholars.

“Knowing I was undocumented — knowing my options were limited, it was like ‘try as hard as you might, but you’re told you’re probably going to end up back here,’” Topiltzin said.

The family is now here legally through DACA. However, the brothers knew their parents had sacrificed everything so they could get the opportunities they never had. Their own father never made it past the third grade.

“It made me want to show them that I could do it. I had what it takes,” Irvin said.

The brothers doubled down and their grades went up. They went up so high they caught the attention of a special scholars program.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the Schuler Scholar Program,” Topiltzin Gomez said. “They taught us we can be leaders — that we have something to contribute and strive to do our best.”

Through the guidance of Schuler, both Irvin and Topiltzin graduated from Waukegan High School at the top of their class — their names forever etched in the trophy case out front.

But their biggest validation came in an envelope.

The day Irvin found out he was accepted into Dartmouth.

“I was like all of a sudden I had a golden ticket. Here I was — an undocumented student who was going to go to an Ivy League school on a full ride,” he said.

“When he got into Dartmouth, my whole world view changed. I realized what was possible,” Topiltzin said.

Following in his brothers’ footsteps, Topiltzin applied to Yale and was accepted.

“When you think about my dad — working class with two sons who went to Ivy League institutions — anyone would want that. But I think for my dad, it taste a little bit sweeter because he didn’t get that opportunity,” Irvin said.

Today, the Gomez brothers are both working for successful startup companies, with work permits through DACA — but have not forgotten the place that helped them get there.

“Schuler fundamentally changed the trajectory of our lives. Our story is one that inspires, but now we want to make sure we use that platform to make sure we’re not the only story out there,” Topiltzin said.

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