Photo of André Herrera Charpentier wearing a black coat, standing near windows.

News & Features

DACAmented and determined

Friday, June 21, 2019

The science of success isn’t an exact formula. Yet, André Herrera Charpentier figured it out.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Northeastern Illinois University in May, Herrera Charpentier is now preparing to begin a Ph.D. program in Behavioral Neuroscience on a full scholarship at Michigan State University in the fall.

Though he comes across as kind of shy, Herrera Charpentier can’t contain his enthusiasm when he talks about science.

“I always wanted to do something with medicine, something with science,” said Herrera Charpentier, who minored in Biology and Chemistry at Northeastern. “I’ve had that in me since I was young.”

That intrinsic drive—coupled with the supportive environment he found after transferring to Northeastern from Harold Washington College—has carried Herrera Charpentier to the doorstep of his academic dreams. The achievement is made all the more remarkable because Herrera Charpentier, a graduate of Lane Tech College Prep High School, is in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects some immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

Herrera Charpentier’s family came to the country from Ecuador when he was 10 years old.

“It was a struggle over there and my dad, just like many others, wanted to provide a better life for us,” said Herrera Charpentier, who is the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

For Herrera Charpentier and other undocumented students, one of the biggest challenges in pursuing a college degree is lack of funding. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal or state financial aid.

“There are some private scholarships out there, but not as many as other students get,” Herrera Charpentier said. “We don’t have any financial assistance from the government. So just trying to be able to attend a four-year institution while being able to pay for it is the biggest challenge.”

To compensate, Herrera Charpentier took a job as a restaurant server and pursued other angles to enrich his college experience at Northeastern, including turning to Undocumented Student Resources Director Luvia Moreno. Herrera Charpentier wanted to attend a few academic conferences to share his research and learn more about the field, but he was not eligible for the usual financial assistance programs. 

“André was very involved in attending conferences and presenting,” Moreno said. “Because he doesn’t have the funds to pay for a hotel, airfare and conference registration, he reached out to me to ask, ‘How can I do this? Can the University help me in some way?’ We were able, thankfully, to use some of the undocumented student funds that we have to cover his expenses to present his research with a faculty member.” 

By attending those conferences and meeting other professionals in his field, Herrera Charpentier was able to learn about the opportunity at Michigan State.

“I’m very proud,” Psychology Professor Maureen Erber said. “I always had a sense he was destined to go far.”

Erber noted that Herrera Charpentier’s determination, hard work and kindness as a student made him an ideal candidate for Northeastern’s MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) U-STAR Program that is designed to support undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral science fields. Since the program is federally funded, Herrera Charpentier could participate in the programming but was not eligible for the financial benefits the program offers other members. Still, he applied himself and made significant contributions to the program and its research.

“He really understood complex concepts and theories, and the thoughtfulness of his observations were really remarkable,” Erber said. “I could see the way he was thinking and that too led me to believe that he had a lot of potential.”

Though Herrera Charpentier’s greatest obstacle to completing his degree was lack of financial support, that isn’t the only challenge many DACA and undocumented students face in higher education.

“We have close to 300 undocumented students every semester,” Moreno said. “Most of them do not reach out. Many of them communicate via email, but I’ve never seen their face. They just reach out with a question or to ask if I know of any scholarships, or just respond to say, ‘Thank you for sharing information with me.’ Then there are the most vocal and most involved students who reach out and come and see me on a regular basis.”

Herrera Charpentier was somewhere in the middle. He shared his story in some of the Ally Training sessions offered to Northeastern faculty and staff but, due to his school and work schedule, could not be very involved in many extracurricular programs. However, he knew it was crucial for him to share his research and connect with other professionals in order to advance.

“Many students are fearful of traveling to a neighboring state,” Moreno said. “He traveled to Hawaii for ARVO, this huge STEM conference. He reached out to see if we could help him with paying for registration, things like that. The fact that he was like, ‘I’m not going to let this stop me and I’m confident that I’m going to go and come back and I’m going to make the most of this experience’ was great.”

Northeastern’s faculty members play an important role in empowering undocumented students, especially since revealing their status can very difficult for them, Moreno said. Indeed, Herrera Charpentier credits Erber with encouraging him to pursue his academic curiosity.

“After I took a class with Dr. Erber, she suggested I get into research,” Herrera Charpentier said. “After working with her in the summer, she suggested I join the MARC program. I try to do my best in school, but it was thanks to that program that opportunities opened for me.” 

Herrera Charpentier’s success sets an example to other undocumented students that their dreams are attainable, Moreno said.

“They too can be like him,” Moreno said. “They can pursue their dreams. It’s a matter of reaching out and finding out who those allies are on campus and off campus. He’s in it to win it, whatever it takes. He’s putting aside his shyness or quietness. He’s passionate about his major, his research, and he wants to pursue higher ed. That’s admirable.”

Herrera Charpentier is eager to start at Michigan State in the fall. Not only will he continue his studies, but the full scholarship will provide Herrera Charpentier with more free time for leisure activities, like reading just for fun. One of the things he’ll be taking with him to graduate school is his gratitude to Northeastern’s faculty and staff.

“I did not expect any of this to happen when I came to Northeastern,” Herrera Charpentier said. “It’s the people that make the school. People actually care about you and care about your future.”

Donations to the Undocumented Student Fund can be made by faculty and staff through payroll dedications. Anyone can donate through Northeastern’s Giving website by selecting “other” under “designation” and typing “Undocumented Student Fund” in the comment box.