Feature News

Luis Tello ’17 is using his college education to give back to the community

Dec 02, 2016

Like most first-year students, Luis Tello arrived at North Central College with dreams of personal achievement. But his goals are focused on helping others achieve their dreams. And he’s getting closer every day.

Luis, a senior sociology major and urban/suburban studies minor from Ramona, Calif., has been named North Central’s 2016 Lincoln Laureate recipient. The award, which includes a Student Laureate medallion and a $1,000 educational grant, was announced Nov. 10 by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Luis worked in his dad’s food truck, often from the end of his school day until 10 p.m. He learned about the value of hard work—and a good deal more. “Our customers were working-class people. I got to know them and heard about their difficulties,” he recounts. “It made me want to learn how to use my education to give back to the community.”

Luis’ family has seen their share of difficulties that continue today. They live in a rented garage, unable to afford to rent a house. His mom is a seamstress in a shirt factory and his dad is now on disability. He has a sister attending college in California, a brother in high school and a sister in elementary school.  

His dedication to the less fortunate is not lost on his professors. “Luis is very attuned to the struggles people experience due to an intersection of their race, class, gender and national origin,” says Ericka Adams, assistant professor of sociology at North Central College.

During my time in Guatemala, I saw firsthand how hard life was for people in this rural community

Luis Tello ’17

The first member of his family to attend college, Luis arrived at North Central with limited English skills. He credits Megan Paustian, visiting assistant professor of English, with helping him from his first day of class. “I had to learn to write essays,” he admits. “She showed confidence in me and was behind me all the way.”

Luis’ efforts to explore the lives of the working poor led him to Guatemala, where—as a Richter Grant recipient—he gained firsthand knowledge about how business is only as good as its human element.

“There’s always a beginning,” he says. “It takes a lot of dedication and love to make a cup of coffee, starting with growing the fruit. The people of Guatemala face a lot of poverty and hunger, but they work hard to continue their rich history and tradition of making coffee.”

Luis reported on his fieldwork at the annual Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research. He is also president of NCC’s Best, a socially conscious, direct trade coffee and craft business.

And his enthusiasm for learning is contagious. “He would often come to office hours just to say how much his ‘mind was blown’ by the opportunities to confront new ideas,” says Jennifer Keys, professor of sociology.

Luis describes himself as “transformed” by his experience at North Central. “It’s a small community where everyone is united as one,” he enthuses. “I want to get my master’s degree in public policy. I’m hoping to stay in Chicago and enact change to help the poor people who are struggling in their lives.”

The 42nd annual award was presented at the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Nov.12. The student Lincoln Laureate is an annual award by The Lincoln Academy of Illinois honoring outstanding seniors from each of the state’s four-year, degree-granting colleges and universities, and one student from the community colleges in Illinois.  

“During my time in Guatemala, I saw firsthand how hard life was for people in this rural community,” he says. “I became interested in the work of independent coffee farmers. I was determined to share their story. Our Conscious Bean coffee is our way of doing that. We have coffee tastings so the whole campus can try the coffee and hear about how it’s made.”

Paustian says Luis’ generosity leaves a lasting impression. “He listens with a genuine interest that empowers his classmates. This sensitivity and skill has driven his emergence as a campus leader.”