When Stephanie Torres started in the Nursing program at College of DuPage, she had no way of knowing that her journey would take her from the Glen Ellyn campus to classrooms around the world, both as a student and a teacher.
“I always wanted to do something where I could become an asset to the community in some way,” she said. “I also wanted to do something that’s not just for myself but as a collective means toward helping one another.”
While she would eventually work in Moldova, study in Taiwan and return to Chicago for a public health career, Torres remembers how, as a COD student, she was inspired to move away from her comfort zone. She promised herself that she would break out of her shell, get more involved on campus and explore different ways of being.
During her second semester, after searching through the College’s clubs, Torres found something that would change her life.
“The Living Leadership Program retreat was probably the single most important moment for me,” she said. “It was out of character because I believed I was too shy and could not do something like that. However, I realized I was capable of more than I thought.”
Her participation in the retreat motivated her to become more involved on campus. As a result, she served as Student Trustee on the College’s Board of Trustees and as Student Leadership Council president, roles for which Student Life Manager Chuck Steele said she was remarkably well suited.
“Stephanie is the epitome of servant leadership,” he explained. “She took her education and leadership development very seriously, but it was always grounded in serving others. She made every team she was on stronger, not just with her intelligence and fortitude but with her ability to bring out the best in others.”
In addition to her involvement on campus, Torres was elected as the student board member on the Illinois Community College Board and later was selected to serve on the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Student Advisory Committee. She appreciated the support she found on campus, particularly from Steele and Coordinator of Student Activities Stephanie Quirk.
“From her first day at College of DuPage, it was clear to everyone that Stephanie could see the big picture,” Quirk said. “During her time at COD and beyond, her peers consistently elected her to represent them at the highest levels and she was steadfast in her commitment to service, representation and advocacy. Working to address systematic issues that affect marginalized communities has been a thread throughout the time I have known Stephanie, and with her ability to meet every challenge with grit and grace, she is just getting started.”
Torres also credits her parents for inspiring her to work hard and pursue opportunities.
“Coming to this country as immigrants from Colombia and speaking little English, my parents started out at the bottom,” she said. “I witnessed firsthand their struggle to create opportunity out of challenges. That is very inspirational to me, especially as an adult with a better understanding of what they went through.”
Pushing herself to face new challenges has become a common theme in Torres’ life. Always interested in the health care field, she said her positive experiences as a nursing student at COD as well as her civic involvement made her decision to focus on public health an obvious choice.
“I am a big proponent of reinvention and that you become whatever you tell yourself about yourself,” she said. “As human beings, we have the right to choose what we want for ourselves—to choose who I am, who I think I am and who I want to be.”
After completing her Associate in Applied Science degree in Nursing, Torres transferred to Northern Illinois University to major in public health. While there, she traveled to Mexico and completed an internship with the nonprofit Human Connections.
Once again embracing those areas outside of her comfort zone, Torres earned her bachelor’s degree and joined the Peace Corps. She traveled to Moldova, where she would return to a classroom but this time in a different role.
“I always wanted to travel, but I wanted to travel with a purpose,” she said. “Through the Nursing program at COD and my public health education, I learned about the dire need felt by diverse communities and the concept of thinking globally while acting locally.”
After spending more than a year teaching health education to elementary and middle school students, Torres found herself offering them a tearful early goodbye when the pandemic struck. It was difficult to leave students she had come to care about, but it would lead to another adventure in yet another country—Taiwan, where she would earn her master’s degree in global health at National Taiwan University.
“I wanted to honor my experiences and lessons I had learned to that point,” she said. “I wanted to put myself in the world community. The way for me to do this was to meet people where they are and not use one cultural perspective as the standard for all. This enabled me to take these different experiences and bring them back to whatever community I end up serving.”
Thinking back to COD always puts a smile on my face. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Today, she has brought her considerable experience, as well as a caring and empathetic nature, to AHS Family Health Center, an organization dedicated to providing health care services to underserved and underprivileged patients throughout the Chicago area via clinics in Chicago, Niles and Skokie.
“I most enjoy the variety of patients we have from different backgrounds,” she said. “AHS provides me wonderful opportunities to learn more and tie my work back to the idea of shared humanity. It also gives me the opportunity to educate people past a particular challenge I see in minority cultures. We tend to ignore our health, often because many people put taking care of their family ahead of their health. Family is important, but if we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others.”
Torres said that her focus in connecting with different cultures is an outgrowth of the idea that people have more in common with each other than they think.
“It comes down to recognizing our shared humanity. While many of us face similar struggles, we ultimately just want someone to care for and to care for us.”
While she has traveled, learned and worked around the globe, Torres will always value her time at COD.
“Thinking back to COD always puts a smile on my face,” she said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. To this day, I still recommend COD and the community college experience. It is not where you go, it is what you do. I am so glad I took advantage of the opportunities the College offered, that I listened to my instincts and, especially, that I had the support of my family to choose my own path.”