Seven months before the start of her freshman year at Roosevelt University, Mariana Luna’s life changed.
Around 4 a.m. one day in 2008, Luna’s mother got a call from her father’s co-worker. Luna’s dad was an industrial painter, doing specialty jobs around the city often involving hard-to-reach spaces at places like Soldier Field, Willis Tower and other buildings and bridges.
The co-worker had called to say Luna’s father had fallen from a CTA platform on Wabash Avenue, breaking his hand, both of his legs and suffering a serious head injury.
After the accident, he wasn’t able to walk or talk, and for months his doctors were unsure if he would ever talk again. Knowing how much help her father would need, Luna reconsidered her plan to go to Roosevelt, unsure she would have time to balance school and the jobs she needed to help her family financially.
“At first, I didn’t want to go to school anymore, because I was just thinking about the financial situation, how he wasn’t working anymore and stuff like that, but I decided to go anyways,” Luna said.
Her decision had a lot to do with how much her father, an immigrant from Mexico, emphasized the importance of education to Luna and her two siblings. Before the accident, Luna’s dad was the kind of person who was happy all the time, always whistling and singing, and often talking to his children about how hard it was to grow up in Mexico, she said.
“He would tell us that he came over here so we could have a better life,” Luna said. “I always had that in the back of mind: ‘I have to do better.’ ”
Those words pushed her to stay strong while she struggled to balance two part-time jobs at Sam’s Club and Roosevelt’s campus bookstore with a full load of classes. She said it was often difficult for her to give her classes her full attention while she was worrying about her father’s condition and helping out at home. For some time after the accident her father needed assistance eating and bathing, and she also spent a lot of time watching her younger sister, who was 7 when their father was injured.
It also prevented Luna from joining any school activities or clubs.
“I would just kind of go to class, get out, come home, and go to work,” she said. “That was just kind of routine for me.”
While she was at school, Luna said she usually kept stories about her home life to herself because she didn’t want any of her teachers or classmates to think she was using her family’s situation as an excuse for not completing her work.
Roosevelt history professor Erik Gellman, one of Luna’s favorite teachers, said he didn’t find out about Luna’s father’s accident until she asked him to read her personal statement for graduate school--but he wasn’t surprised he didn’t know about it. He called Luna “probably the last person in the world to use her family struggles as an excuse.”
After starting at Roosevelt with the intention of becoming a teacher, Luna made the abrupt switch to psychology after coming to the realization she wanted to help people who have been through situations like her father but lack the support he had after his accident.
She made the decision while sitting in a church after her dad’s court hearing on receiving compensated for his medical bills.
“It just kind of came to me, like ‘Oh, I should be a psychologist to help people who don’t really have anyone there for them,’ ” Luna said. “My dad has his family to support him, but there are so many people out there who have issues but don’t have anybody. As a psychologist, I can be there for people.”
Five years later, Luna is well on her way to realizing that dream. The first weekend of May she walked across the stage during Roosevelt’s graduation ceremony to receive her diploma. Her father, who can talk and walk again but is still recovering, was sitting in the audience along with Luna’s mother, siblings and extended family.
“I knew that mostly I was just kind of doing it for them, so when I heard them cheering, I was like, ‘OK, I got it,’ ” Luna said.
In the fall, Luna will return to Roosevelt to begin her master’s in the clinical psychology program. After spending most of her undergrad focused on her family, she’s finally able to make grad school more about her.
“Of course I want to make them happy still, but it’s going to be more about me, and I’m ready for that,” Luna said.
She’s also looking forward to a career that will not only allow her to help other people but also allow her to continue to help her family financially. Her mother runs a home day-care, and his father won a lawsuit to receive compensation for his medical bills, but he will never be able to work again.
Still, despite all of their struggles, Luna said the overall experience has only strengthened her bond with her family, especially her relationship with her older brother.
“We’ve gotten a lot closer,” Luna said. “Only we know what we’ve been through, and only we can really help each other out. If there’s an issue, we know that we’re going to be able to get out of it, because there’s nothing stronger than that family bond. Now we know that we can get through anything.”
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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