Juan Cervantes

Family, biology studies come first for C of I senior

When College of Idaho director of multicultural affairs Arnold Hernandez looked across his desk, he didn’t know what to make of Juan Cervantes. Juan’s mother had scheduled the meeting to talk about financial aid and her son’s dream of becoming a first-generation college student. Cervantes looked younger than a high school senior, not very confident, and shy.

His mom did most of the talking.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to create a lot of support for this guy,’ ” Hernandez said.

Four years later, Hernandez has a lot more respect for quiet students.

Cervantes’ quiet nature is easily misinterpreted for shyness. But he exudes a quiet confidence. Spend 10 minutes with him, and it’s easy to tell Cervantes has two passions in life; family and giving back. Oh, and biology.

Last summer, Cervantes was accepted into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (HHMI EXROP). He spent the summer immersed in the University of Pittsburgh Hatfull Lab studying the protein ParB, which is involved in the division of viral DNA.

The research project was one of the most successful he has worked on.

“A lot of things ended up working out for me,” Cervantes said. “I thought, I’m either getting really lucky, or I’m following all of the protocols correctly.’”

The EXROP program is open to science students from racial, ethnic and other underrepresented groups, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The students are paired with HHMI scientists who mentor them for 10 weeks of full-time, paid research.

Since the inception of the program in 2003, 732 undergraduates have been accepted—and Cervantes is the first one to represent an Idaho institution.

“Juan is without a doubt one of the smartest students I’ve ever met,” Hernandez said. “And he is going to do something big after The College of Idaho.”

While Cervantes will graduate this spring, the road to a diploma hasn’t been easy for a first-generation college student raised by a single mother, with support from family members.

Growing up in Mexico, Cervantes’ mother only had the chance to complete elementary school before joining the workforce. And Cervantes has watched her work extremely hard while struggling financially, he said.

That is why he endeavors to make the most of his educational opportunities.

“Family is the main reason why I’m here and why I try so hard,” Cervantes said. “It’s because my family has put a lot of work into raising [my siblings and I] and supporting us. So, it’s always been a big motivator of what I do and why I do things.”

Being the first in his family to go to college is a doubled-edged sword for Cervantes; a privilege to display the benefits of a college education to his family, but also a huge responsibility to set a precedent for his two younger siblings.

His educational success has led Cervantes to also be a leader outside the classroom. Starting when he was a sophomore at Caldwell High School, Cervantes tutored elementary and middle school students who lived in his housing area of Farmway Village; a government subsidized housing community with youth who are considered “at-risk.”

“I was lucky enough that I didn’t really need that help growing up, but there are other students who do,” Cervantes said. “And it was rewarding being there to help them.”

He’s continued to tutor at the C of I. Professor Maimuna Islam, director of the C of I academic support center, said students specifically seek out Cervantes for help in chemistry and biology. After three years of tutoring, he will be greatly missed.

“Absolutely one of our best tutors,” Islam said. “He has this heartfelt, genuine desire to help others.”

Cervantes has been involved in every facet of campus life. He serves as secretary for both Omicron Delta Kappa (a leadership honor society) and the Resident Housing Association. He’s the team manager for the C of I lacrosse team and has volunteered at the Math and Science Summer Institute held on campus every summer for seventh and eighth graders.

“It is fun to show [the students] something new, get them interested in (science and math), and also give them a taste of what college is like,” Cervantes said. “I think the earlier you can get that thought of college into their heads, the better.”

This summer, Cervantes will fly back to Pittsburgh after being awarded a continuance in his research studies under the HHMI EXROP Capstone program. For now, the biology major is enjoying his final semester on the C of I campus; one he describes as diverse, close-knit, and full of professors who are not only teachers, but also role models and mentors.

After college, a career in biomedical research beckons—a fitting occupation for a young man who has made a priority of giving back to those around him.