Journey From Juarez, Mexico is Life-Changing for Two NWU Grads

Rebeca Chavez admits she was scared to come to Nebraska four years ago.

She was far from home and had arrived on a campus with nothing but a small suitcase.

It was a different kind of scared, though. Much different than the scared she experienced on the streets of Juarez, Mexico.

“You learn to live scared there,” she said. “That’s not a good way to live.”

Chavez will graduate Saturday from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to a place she calls her “safe haven.”

Her classmate, Luis Alvarez feels the same. Alvarez, who also grew up in Juarez, was 11-years-old when his grandparents dropped him off at an orphanage. They were too weak to raise him and his dad was serving time in jail.

Nebraska Wesleyan also became his safe place.

Their journeys to Nebraska Wesleyan came by way of the Lydia Patterson Institute, a private United Methodist preparatory school in El Paso, Texas. The school was founded nearly 100 years ago as a sanctuary for families fleeing the Mexican Revolution. Today, nearly 70 percent of the school’s students come from Mexico with many of them wanting to get away from the drug-related violence in Juarez.

Chavez’s daily trip to high school, for example, included a 45-minute car ride from the dusty outskirts of Juarez to a border checkpoint where her backpack and lunch box were examined. From there she made a five-minute walk to the Lydia Patterson Institute.

Going home was more troublesome. She would leave school after mariachi band practice and cross the long bridge back to Juarez.

“The sun would be going down and you could just feel the environment around you,” she said. “There were days my mom would be running late and I would start to worry if she was killed.”

Both Chavez and Alvarez received scholarships to attend the Lydia Patterson Institute. The scholarships required them both to work on campus — both did lay ministry work. Alvarez did maintenance work before school and worked in the school cafeteria during lunch. Chavez also worked in the cafeteria and cleaned offices, including Dr. Socorro de Anda’s, the president of the Lydia Patterson Institute.

“She always called me ‘little Rebeca,’” Chavez recalled.

The students have a special place in their hearts for de Anda, who helped guide both to consider school at Nebraska Wesleyan.

Thanks to de Anda and a partnership with the United Methodist Church, students attending the Lydia Patterson Institute can apply for an international scholarship to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University. The scholarship covers tuition; United Methodist churches cover the students’ room and board. Students serve as interns at the Methodist churches.

“It’s a good partnership,” said de Anda. “These students can then be a resource to the churches.”

Chavez credits her high school teachers and de Anda for helping her discover her love for knowledge.

“I would not have learned English, and I would not have been as interested in learning because no one would have paid attention to me had I went to school in Juarez,” she said.

“Then I was able to come here and continue my love for learning,” Chavez continued. “The school work wasn’t hard or boring because I was interested in it and people had faith in me.”

Others from the Lydia Patterson Institute have followed their footsteps. Two other students including Chavez’s sister, Elizabeth are studying at NWU. Two more students have applied to attend next fall.

Commencement day will be bittersweet for Chavez and Alvarez. Both say they will miss the friendly and calm atmosphere, but they are excited to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

And watching from the audience will be their families as well as Dr. de Anda, who for the first time is attending commencement exercises for former students.

“Students at Lydia Patterson are part of a family and I know it’s been a similar environment here for Rebeca and Luis too,” she said. “That kind of environment makes a difference in their formation.”

Following graduation, Chavez will move back to Juarez but pursue work in the United States as a pharmaceutical lab technician. She will also apply to medical school and hopes to one day do mission work in Mexico.

Alvarez is graduating with a degree in psychology and will move south to attend graduate school at Texas Tech University.

“To go from the streets of Juarez to a college in Nebraska was a big jump,” said Alvarez. “The experience here has been incredible.”


This is the kind of article I always want to read. Makes me cry to think what a struggle so many kids have to be cared for and reach their goals. Wonderful that the President of their former school has been there at NWU to see them graduate.

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Rebeca Chavez and Luis Alvarez grew up in Juarez, Mexico, a key battleground in Mexico's drug wars.