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Political science grad strives to become immigration lawyer, civic leader

Lenin Plazas
Lenin Plazas will graduate from DePaul June 12 with a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in history and a concentration in American politics. (DePaul University/Randall Spriggs)

One in a series of stories about DePaul University’s Class of 2022

At just 9 months old, Lenin Plazas' parents used medical visas to bring him from Ecuador to Chicago so he could be treated for a rare heart defect. The family never left.

"Growing up, I didn't know we weren't originally from the U.S. until I asked my mom when I was in fourth grade," Plazas says. "As I got older, I started to take pride in the fact that I was an immigrant and a Dreamer [protected under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA, program]. When I visited Ecuador and realized how hard it is to get a visa, I began to feel like I was in the U.S. for a purpose."

The Dreamer became an advocate. Plazas worked on political campaigns, interned with an elected official and was inspired to follow a future of service. As a representative on DePaul University's Student Government Association, he spoke up for his classmates. Now a permanent resident, Plazas plans to become an immigration lawyer and dreams of seeking political office to help people in their time of need, just as his family was helped in theirs.

"Lenin has devoted his time to help those less fortunate by relying on his immigration background to direct his efforts," says Joe Tafoya, assistant professor in DePaul's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, who has taught Plazas in two classes.

DePaul's educational and experiential opportunities influenced his future. On June 12, Plazas will serve as a student commencement speaker for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies ceremony. When he graduates from DePaul, with a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in history and a concentration in American politics, he will become the first person in his family to receive a college degree.

The DePaul experience

Plazas found a welcoming environment at DePaul, meeting classmates who were "willing to fight for issues like immigration policy — a topic close to my heart — despite them being born in the U.S.," he says.

"I could be open about who I was without being looked down upon or being judged. My worth was more than the color of my brown Ecuadorian passport," Plazas says.

He excelled in his classes and soaked in knowledge wherever he could. Molly Andolina, associate professor of political science, who taught Plazas in his senior capstone course, says Plazas made the most of the opportunities that a liberal arts education provides.

"He chose a major that he nurtured in the classroom and off campus with participation in political campaigns and by connecting with the Chicago community," Andolina says. "His minor in history provides context to his political science courses, and his classes in The Theatre School allowed him the training and space to share his experiences."

Plazas gained real-world experience during his college years by volunteering on the 2019 Chicago mayoral campaign of Susana Mendoza and the 2020 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. In winter 2022, he interned online for U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

"At one time, these politicians were just like me: a college student with some hopes of making a difference. In watching how they ran their campaigns and how they lead, I thought, why can't that be me later in life?' " Plazas says.

Stepping up on campus

After nearly a year and a half of remote learning, Plazas became more involved at DePaul as a senior.

Running on a platform of raising awareness of commuter safety, Plazas was elected the Student Government Association's senator for commuter students and helped organize a Student Safety Town Hall. The response from the town hall inspired DePaul's administration to launch the Inter-Campus Shuttle Pilot Program, which transported students between the Loop and Lincoln Park campuses during Spring Quarter from 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; the program will continue this fall.

"Lenin's passion and dedication for advocating for his peers is unparalleled," says Courtney James, director of Student Involvement and staff advisor to SGA. "His impact will far exceed his time at DePaul."

Russell Dorn is a manager of news and integrated content in University Marketing and Communications.