Jenny Fuerte grew up amid the sights, sounds and smells of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Food vendors sell everything from tacos to tamales, elotes and chili-lime mangos. The church bells ring — from St. Paul to St. Pius to Providence of God — announcing last call before mass begins. The aroma of freshly baked “conchas” — the sugar-crusted, dome-shaped sweet bread, the staple of every Mexican panadería — wafts throughout the neighborhood.
Though Fuerte lived less than 10 miles from the heart of DePaul University’s Loop campus, she might as well have lived 1,000 miles away. For Fuerte, the thought of attending college was not an elusive dream, but an undiscovered aspiration.
Born into a working class family of six, to immigrant parents from Morelos, Mexico, Fuerte was raised with a strong sense of culture, work ethic and family. “Familia always comes first,” her father, Leonardo, would say. Through sacrifice, research and scholarships, plus the assistance of HighSight, a nonprofit organization that offers college readiness programs, Fuerte was able to attend Holy Trinity High School and learn about the world beyond the streets of Pilsen.
“It was kind of hard growing up with immigrant parents. They didn’t speak English so they couldn’t find the resources that I needed for high school and college. I didn’t even know about college until I got to high school,” reflected Fuerte.
Selecting a college path
Mentors were instrumental in helping her discover the possibilities of pursuing higher education and the opportunities a degree would open. Her tenacity and drive landed her at DePaul in 2010. Originally, she was interested in studying communications. An internship at Univision Radio made her re-examine her career path.
“I had my son, Rudy. Becoming a mom made me realize the kind of work schedule I might face in broadcasting, so I thought of my other interests. I was into Web design and, after taking a course, I really enjoyed it. That’s when I decided to study interactive and social media,” said Fuerte.
“The first time I got into design was when users where able to edit their Myspace profile page by using code. I would spend hours working on my page until it was perfect,” recalled Fuerte. “I discovered that developing the way users experience and interact online involved designing and helping people. I wanted to help people through technology and satisfy their overall experience as a user.”
Unlike most university students who juggle classes, homework, papers and projects, Fuerte also had the responsibilities of being a single mother. She was also her parents’ right hand, the oldest of four siblings, and a caretaker to her disabled sister.
Staying on course
Fluctuating back and forth between full-time and part-time student status extended her journey toward her degree, but Fuerte felt supported by family, friends and especially her advisors and faculty at DePaul.
“I’m proud I lasted this long; I thought I was going to give up so many times, but I kept pushing myself. And I had a lot of people pushing me too,” said Fuerte.
“There are going to be people who will tell you that once you have a baby, your college life is over. It is not, unless you let it be. If your goal is to get a college education, do it! Yes it’s going to be stressful, challenging, you’ll want to cry yourself to sleep, and it may take longer to graduate. But once you are done, it will be so worth it,” stressed Fuerte.
”Surround yourself with positive people, people who will support you. If it wasn’t for the support of my family, friends, my son’s father, mentors and professors, I wouldn’t be here today or have accomplished everything that I have done here at DePaul,” she said.
“Jenny told me that she didn’t even think about attending college until late in high school,” said Denise C. Nacu, instructor in the School of Design in the College of Computing and Digital Media. “And now, I see that she has developed the design skills, creativity and passion for technology that will give her a strong start as a professional who can improve lives and help people.
“To me, Jenny represents a great example of the importance of empowering young people with high expectations, engaging learning experiences and a supportive community. DePaul has certainly provided that for her, and I’m so proud to have been part of it,” Nacu said.
Innovation, graduation and beyond
For Fuerte, these challenges did not become obstacles, but opportunities to help her grow and reach her goal. This June, Fuerte will walk across the stage to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in interactive and social media from the College of Computing and Digital Media.
Fuerte, a DePaul Innovation Award winner and a Launch DePaul finalist, is now in the process of developing her innovation idea, Kidsband, an app she created to benefit other parents with young children or children with disabilities.
“My problem was that I couldn’t be with my son all the time because I’m in school. I would wonder if he was OK. What if he got kidnapped? I thought, why not create an application that will help parents monitor their children?” said Fuerte. Her concept: children wear a small device on their clothes that allows parents to monitor their well-being through a smartphone app.
"Jenny is a tremendous young lady who has persisted and excelled in her pursuit of her bachelor's degree in interactive and social media. Her unique perspective has resulted in original app designs that have won multiple awards for innovation," said Nichole D. Pinkard, director and associate professor in the School of Design.
Fuerte has learned the value of mentors. As a future DePaul alumna, she looks forward to the chance to mentor young students, foster their interests and embolden them to pursue careers in computer design.
“We need to encourage more women, more women of color, more Latinas to enter the technology fields,” added Fuerte. “At DePaul, they pushed me to do my best. They helped me grow as a person, as a student, as a professional. I like how they pushed me to be confident and strong.”
It’s a fitting word for Jenny Fuerte. That’s what her last name means in Spanish: strong.
One in a series of stories about graduates from the Class of 2015