When Agustin Torres got his Case Western Reserve University student ID, he sat on a campus bench, turning it over in his hand and taking it all in. He had come a long way, after all, and that was not lost on him.

It had been about 10 years since he was arrested after the business he owned hired undocumented workers. In that moment, he lost nearly everything.

“I had no hope,” he said. “I had everything one day, and then I lost everything the next.”

But Torres set out on a path that would once again change everything—and lead him to that bench at Case Western Reserve.

Forging a new path

Torres moved to Northeast Ohio in 1996 from his native Mexico, when he was transferred from the Cancun Hard Rock Café to a new location in Cleveland. He eventually opened his own bar and restaurant in the area.

After Torres’ arrest in 2008, his probation officer encouraged him to finish his high school degree by taking GED classes through a program offered at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C).

Then, just a few years after he had been in the federal courthouse for his arrest, he found himself there once again—this time to earn his GED.

With support and encouragement from his mentor at Tri-C, Elliott Huff, Torres decided to continue his education. He worked toward his Associate of Arts degree at Tri-C and became part of the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, a joint initiative between Tri-C and Case Western Reserve to help students move from an associate’s to a bachelor’s degree.

After completing his degree at Tri-C in spring 2018, Torres was accepted to Case Western Reserve. He admits he cried.

“It’s been quite a journey,” he said.

Now, he’s working toward his bachelor’s degree in Spanish. But it’s not always easy. As a 46-year-old, he found that some students mistook him for a faculty member. And the transition from Tri-C to CWRU was significant, especially for someone learning the nuances of the English language.

During his first semester, he worked 60-65 hours a week to support his family while also balancing six classes. But he refused to go back to where he had been.

Torres said he’s adjusted to Case Western Reserve’s environment—and found success in his classes. 

“This is everything for me,” Torres said. “This is my life.”

This summer—after completing his first year at CWRU—Torres is back in Mexico conducting research funded by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. Inspired by a class he took on the history of the Caribbean, he is conducting oral interviews with Mexicans of African descent to learn about their traditions, past and family, and how they cope with discrimination.

Torres said he’s re-writing his own history. After he completes his bachelor’s degree, he hopes to find a way to work with the Latino community in Cleveland or even get his master’s degree in nonprofit management.

“My whole perception of life has changed,” Torres said of his time at CWRU and of seeking higher education. “I’m able to see things that before I couldn’t. It’s like when you’re driving on a foggy day and you cannot see anything, and then you get the sun and everything is bright.”

Get to know Torres more in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s next on your reading list?

Before Mestizaje by [Provost and Executive Vice President] Ben Vinson III.

2. Do you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl?

Early bird—that way I can get a lot of things done.

3. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

I am a decent nonfiction writer.

4. What do you think is the most beautiful spot in Cleveland?

The lake.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The professors and the staff. Coming from my country, we value professors a lot, so since I was a kid, I was taught to respect professors, even though you might not always agree with them. They are the ones who are giving you the tools to succeed in life.