As a first-generation student, navigating the college application process was a daunting and overwhelmingly stressful process for Henry Lliguicota-Lema, who began his undergraduate journey at Case Western Reserve University in August 2020. From managing stress fueled by financial constraints and his family’s unfamiliarity with the college environment to mental health challenges, there were moments Lliguicota-Lema questioned his sense of belonging on campus.
“Imposter syndrome has also weighed heavily on me,” said Lliguicota-Lema, now a fourth-year student majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in computer science. “Coming from a primarily Ecuadorian and Latino community in New Jersey, CWRU was a huge cultural shock for me, and there were many moments when I felt out of place and like I didn’t belong.”
However, he was able to find his niche with student organizations such as the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers (SHPE), First CWRU and La Alianza. The communities he found in these organizations became the support system where he felt included and understood. During his time at the university, he also has been highly involved with the university’s Medical Technology Group, which aims to enhance motor independence for children with cerebral palsy using assistive technology. He serves as the organization’s vice president of design.
He also has thrived professionally, with internships at Procter & Gamble and Northrop Grumman, where he led research on an air freshener prototype and conducted comprehensive hole fatigue analysis on finite element method models.
Now, Lliguicota-Lema, aims to use his past experiences as motivation to guide other students who may feel lost or need support to help them navigate their own paths.
“I hope that my story, with its mix of successes and challenges, can show people how much we’re capable of overcoming. I believe it’s important to share these experiences to inspire others and let them know that no matter the obstacles they face, they can achieve success,” said Lliguicota-Lema.
His main passion, however, is raising awareness on mental health and domestic violence issues and highlighting crucial roles of organizations aiding underprivileged communities—both of which can be demonstrated through his participation as a speaker for the Survivor Speak Out event hosted by the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women earlier this year.
“It marked the first time I openly spoke about the experiences my family and I endured regarding domestic violence,” said Lliguicota-Lema.
Read on for a deeper look into how Lliguicota-Lama’s personal experiences helped shape his perspective at CWRU.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
1. Overall, how has being a first-generation student shaped your identity or campus perspective?
Being a first-generation student has tremendously shaped who I am today. I’m mindful of the sacrifices my family made for me to have the opportunities I do. I never take these opportunities for granted because I know firsthand how challenging it was to reach this point, and I know that not everyone has the same opportunities. It’s a significant part of my identity that I cherish and don’t want to lose sight of.
This experience serves as fuel and motivation, driving me forward in my journey. But it’s not just about my progress; it’s about ensuring I’m not the only one moving ahead. From my personal experience, I’ve learned the importance of support and guidance others can provide. That’s why I’m committed to using my experiences to lift others and to be the support and guide I wished I had when navigating this path. I must pay it forward and help others achieve their dreams and navigate challenges, just as others have done for me.
2. How did challenges with mental health shape your initial experience at CWRU? How does your passion for mental health awareness relate to your studies in mechanical engineering?
My challenges with mental health have heavily influenced my experience on campus. Right from my first year, [COVID-19] took a massive toll on me. I felt isolated and alone, which made it hard to connect with others or explore campus life. Being far from my family also added to the stress. Navigating this entirely new life on my own was overwhelming. My struggles with social anxiety and self-consciousness led me to immerse myself in schoolwork, but it made forming a social life quite challenging.
Even though my interest in mental health does not seem directly related to mechanical engineering, there is some correlation. In my challenging engineering studies, I have learned how important it is not to let the workload overwhelm me and neglect my mental well-being. It is crucial to check in with yourself regularly and make sure you are not overburdened. Beyond that, my passion for helping underprivileged communities that are more likely to deal with mental health challenges keeps me motivated during my studies. I hope to use my engineering knowledge to help these communities and work on technologies that create real change in people’s lives.
3. What resources or support systems helped you adapt to the CWRU environment?
Before college, I was fortunate to receive unwavering support from New Jersey SEEDS, a nonprofit organization that prepares top-performing, low-income students for admission to private schools and colleges. They guided me through the entire application process, offering help in college searches, essay development, and ACT preparation.
At CWRU, various resources and support systems such as La Alianza and SHPE fostered a deeper connection to my Latin heritage through cultural events and activities. Additionally, SHPE provided crucial support for my professional development, offering workshops and mentorship opportunities and helping me attend the SHPE National Conventions. These experiences opened doors I never thought possible, broadening my horizons professionally and personally. Another invaluable support network has been First CWRU. Since my first year, it’s connected me with fellow first-generation students and offered stress-relief events, fostering a sense of community and belonging.
As I dealt with mental health challenges, University Health and Counseling Services became a vital resource. Their therapy sessions helped me address and work through my traumas. This support has profoundly impacted my life, and while I admit there’s more work ahead, I’m in a much better place than before. These resources and support systems collectively provided me with a sense of belonging, opportunities for personal and professional growth, and crucial assistance in managing my mental health.
4. What inspired you to speak at Survivor Speak Out? Were there any challenges or fears you faced in sharing your story, and how did you overcome them?
It took me a long time to feel comfortable addressing and raising awareness on the delicate topic. My childhood experiences with domestic violence had a lasting impact on my mental health, often making me feel trapped. But by speaking at this event, it felt like I regained control over those experiences and could potentially make an impact. Sharing the stage with other speakers was overwhelming yet enlightening. It reinforced the importance of shedding light on these issues.
The fear many people face regarding domestic violence is something I am passionate about overcoming. I want to dismantle the stigma around discussing mental health and domestic abuse. This event was not the end, and it motivated me to do more. I aim to foster a safe and inclusive environment for everyone on campus and I hope to get involved with initiatives like It’s On CWRU, dedicated to disrupting the culture of violence.
5. What are your career aspirations and goals beyond CWRU?
Beyond CWRU, my aspirations revolve around working on groundbreaking technologies that genuinely change lives. I’m eager to leverage my experiences to become a mentor and support system for underprivileged communities. As I approach the end of my journey at CWRU, my goal is to continue striving for success—not just for myself but also for my family and those who haven’t had the same opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have. I’m committed to making a positive impact in both my professional endeavors and in giving back to communities in need.
6. Any additional thoughts you’d like to share?
By sharing our experiences, I believe we offer hope to those encountering similar challenges and work toward eliminating the stigma surrounding these critical issues. Through my own journey, I learned the importance of helping communities in need and standing in solidarity against violence. It is a commitment I will continue to advocate for fervently.
We must not turn a blind eye when others are suffering. Each one of us holds the power to make a difference, regardless of the scale. I aim to be a voice for those who feel unheard, uncertain, or undeserving as I have experienced the profound impact of fear and helplessness firsthand, and no one should endure such pain.
It’s crucial to create an environment where everyone feels secure and supported, where every voice is heard and valued. We must work collectively to ensure no one suffers and feels alone. Together, we can spark change and break the cycle of suffering.