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Eddie Bocanegra’s experiences have led him through a time of turmoil in his community to a life of service to his community. The eldest of five children born to immigrant parents, he experienced an upbringing many families in his circumstance experience: struggle.
Bocanegra said, “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in the Little Village neighborhood, a community that unfortunately is plagued with gangs, drugs and underperforming schools.”
As a young adult, Bocanegra faced a reality most teenagers do not envision: 14 years in prison for his involvement in a gang-related crime. Despite his broken past, he saw a silver lining. “When I was released at age 32, I was finally given a chance to reach my full potential, one that grows exponentially each day,” he said. “I suppose the easy thing would be to say I’ve changed, but in reality I’ve discovered who I really am.”
Bocanegra became an involved member of his community, intervening in the lives of youth contemplating gang activity. His work via CeaseFire, an anti-violence initiative founded in Chicago by Gary Slutkin, was featured in the 2011 independent documentary “The Interrupters,” which earned film festival recognition and international acclaim.
Bocanegra enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University in the Nontraditional Degree Program and soon developed roots in the social work department. “The Nontraditional Degree Program recognized my experiences and understood my challenges. This program allowed me to put my faith into action and find my way to the social work program, where I found a new family.”
During his time at Northeastern, Bocanegra fused his education with his community. “I organized classmates and professors to visit the communities where I worked. I brought youth from my neighborhood—who had never considered college as an option—to Northeastern, where they saw students not much older than they were and from the very same neighborhood. I brought them to see people just like them, yet chose to be involved in the positive pursuit of a degree, rather than street life.”
Bocanegra, who earned his B.A. in social work from Northeastern last year, is now the co-executive director for youth and safety violence prevention at YMCA Metropolitan Chicago.
Francisco Gaytan, assistant professor, social work, said, “I believe that Eddie’s tireless engagement with the community that he came from, and his attempt to make it a better place, truly shows how he has taken what he learned at Northeastern and is now leading in the world.”