Giving a speech in front of 800 people can be intimidating no matter who is in the crowd. But when the audience is composed of heavy hitters from the Chicago political scene including David Axelrod, Patrick Fitzgerald, Steve Koch and others, it's a potentially overwhelming challenge.
But for Berto Aguayo, a Dominican University freshman selected to speak as a representative of the youth involved in Mikva programs
at the Mikva Challenge Spring Benefit April 25, it was just another in a long line of such challenges.
Aguayo may be known by many on campus for his recent election to the presidency of Student Government Association, or for carrying a 3.91 GPA while triple majoring in politics, philosophy and economics, or simply for his indefatigable energy and toothy grin.
Although he speaks openly and candidly about it, fewer know about Aguayo's difficult past, which included, as he describes it, a "low-income" upbringing by a single mother on Chicago's South Side, failing grades and active participation in one of the city's largest street gangs.
|Among fans of Aguayo's speech at the Mikva Challenge Spring Fundraiser April 25 was Steve Koch, deputy mayor of Chicago.|
"I didn't have that safety net. I lacked that role model," Aguayo says. "There was no one in my neighborhood I could look up to. No one in my neighborhood went to college, no one had a degree, and when you don't have anyone around you who's done that, you don't even know that sort of thing is a possibility for you."
Thanks in large part to the mother whom Aguayo says "never gave up" on him, he transferred schools to UNO Garcia Public Charter High School, made connections with teachers and fellow students, and began to turn around his life. At UNO, he saw his GPA go from a 1.5 to a 5.0, got involved in the grassroots organization Education Reform Alumni
and began to think about college as a real possibility.
His experiences at UNO also sparked an interest in politics. That burgeoning passion helped him land an internship through the Mikva Fellows program working with Alderwoman Michelle Smith from Chicago's 43rd Ward. His enthusiasm, natural charisma and ambition then led him to be selected along with 19 other Chicago youth to take part in the Mikva Challenge, working on the Mayoral Youth Commission to come up with solutions to many of the issues he and other young people in the city face.
The Mikva Challenge, founded in 1997 as a tribute to former White House Counsel, Judge and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, helps low-income Chicago youth become meaningful participants in politics.
The possibilities opening in front of him fueled his drive and, he says, helped him make a difficult transition out of gang life.
"I've learned and changed a lot," he says. "We're from tough neighborhoods. We're the ones who are being affected by the policies being put into place without including our voice. I want to be that voice."
He applied to Dominican after hearing about it from a friend who had applied. While Aguayo never made a scheduled admissions visit, he says he came on his own and was struck by its setting among picturesque River Forest Homes, just blocks from the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and undeniable feeling of devotion to study. After being presented with a financial aid package that brought expenses within reach, he decided Dominican was the next step in his upward journey.
"I feel like everywhere I've gone, I've landed at an institution on the brink of a turning point, that's just about to reach that next level. I hear so many people talking about Dominican now. It's climbing," he says. "I take Dominican everywhere I go
Since 2000, the Mikva Challenge has trained more than 20,000 young people in getting involved with the political process. Aguayo was selected from among the participants in the Mayoral Youth Commission to emcee the April 25 event.
In addition to introducing speakers, he gave remarks on his journey and experience. While the speech was only about a minute in length, you can be sure he was well-prepared for it. (In fact, if you ask him, he can recite it all from memory.)
It made an impression. According to Aguayo, he was approached by figures including Fitzgerald and Deputy Mayor Steve Koch about his experiences at UNO and at Dominican, including his SGA election and his stated desire to go on to Harvard Law School.
With Harvard reportedly admitting less than 900 of the more than 5,000 annual applicants to its law school, the odds seem long to most. But not from Aguayo's perspective.
"I told God, 'You've given me all this,'" Aguayo says. "'I'll make you proud.'"