When the coronavirus pandemic struck New York City, LaGuardia Community College professor Lucia Fuentes assigned students in her honors biology class to compile all the information they could find about COVID-19.
The result? An online multilingual brochure based on research from peer-reviewed journals, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has become a valuable resource for immigrants in the United States and their families abroad.
“Science is complicated and we have to make it more accessible,” Fuentes said. “This is why … I thought it would be a good thing for the students, and that it would be a contribution.”
Nothing stopped the project — not even the death of Fuentes’ husband on March 25, 2020 due to complications from COVID-19, or her own bout with the disease. In her grief, she remains committed to her students and determined to prevent others from getting sick.
“I wasn’t going to drop my students, and I knew they were going through tons of really horrible stuff,” she said. “I talked to some of them afterwards … and they really appreciated that.”
She also valued their support.
“Students gave me strength,” she said. “Knowing that they expected me to be there, that’s what propels me. It always has. I love my students.”
The class brochures were also printed and distributed in her native Guatemala as well as in Colombia. Her most recent work involves information about COVID vaccines.
Students have already helped translate the latest brochures into their native languages, including Albanian, Korean and Portuguese.
Fuentes’ project is rooted in her own life experiences. She fled Guatemala after her father — Alberto Fuentes Mohr, a respected political leader, economist and diplomat — was kidnapped in 1970 and killed in 1979. When she went into exile to Switzerland, she didn’t know French, and she felt like she fell behind in class because of the language barrier.
“It was an eye-opener in every way in terms of how I realize the struggle and the questioning of the 'fairness’ of those of us who get the possibility of having an education,” she said.
When she became a college professor, she saw how her students faced a similar struggle.
“I realized that it was the language. They were smart, they knew the stuff, it was just the language.”
Ruben Felipe Perez, a LaGuardia student from Colombia who hopes to attend medical school, called Fuentes an “amazing human being” who inspires many by overcoming great challenges in her quest to keep others safe.
“She just turned all that grief into giving to the rest of the community,” he said.