LSU junior Rigoberto Herrera-Zelaya knows a thing or two about the meaning of the word “sacrifice.”
When he was three years old, his father, Rigoberto Herrera Sr., moved to Metairie from the family’s homeland of Honduras. What followed was a story that is all-too-familiar for a lot of immigrant families; albeit this time with an unfortunate Louisiana twist and a distinctly Louisiana happy ending.
Currently, more than 1,100 students at LSU are receiving the Pelican Promise scholarship, and LSU expects that number to increase to 1,500 by the end of the academic year. The value of the award is the equivalent of tuition and the registration fee.
For more information about Pelican Promise, visit the Financial Aid website.
“My grandmother was originally here, and when she gained residency she was able to request her sons,” said Herrera-Zelaya. “My father was able to come here and obtain a visa for my sister and I. We moved to this country with my father, and I lived with my father and grandmother for 13 years until my mother was able to come.”
For 13 years Herrera-Zelaya lived more than 1,000 miles away from his mother, Sandra. While he was able to return to Honduras during the summers to see her, and she was never more than a phone call away, the distance meant she had to miss a number of rites of passage that other parents are able to enjoy.
“I wish my mother could have been there to see me off on my first day of school, loosing my first tooth and graduating from high school,” Herrera- Zelaya said.
“At an early age, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but as the years progressed, I understood the impact of the separation. Having my grandmother as a guardian and, for all purposes, another mother helped me to fill in the gap I felt at times.”
An educated man and laboratory technician by trade in Honduras, Rigoberto Sr. had neither the time nor the money to gain reaccreditation in America, so instead he took any job he could find to support his family.
“My dad needed money to be able to support my sister and I when we came,” Herrera-Zelaya said. “The price of schooling for him, and the time it would take for him to be accredited and recertified, would’ve taken more than he had. His priority was to provide for us.”
All was going well for the Herrera family until 2005, when the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina forced them to relocate to Georgia. After a year, the family moved back to Louisiana and settled in Kenner, where Sandra, a fellow laboratory technician like her husband, was able to join them.
After moving from Honduras to America as a child, and then attending three high schools as a teenager, Herrera-Zelaya was faced with yet another major move upon his return to Louisiana—college.
“My parents had to do anything they could, work any and all jobs just to take care of myself and my sister,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to struggle through life; I had to build a strong foundation and succeed.
“For me, education is really important because I know the sacrifices my parents made to bring myself and my sister here,” he said. “Failure is not an option.”
After narrowing down his college choices to three in-state institutions, Herrera-Zelaya received a Pelican Promise scholarship offer from LSU and enrolled immediately.
“It was the deciding factor in coming to LSU,” he said. “I come from a low-income family; my parents weren’t able to pay for anything for me, and I had to manage my finances to get to college. The Pelican Promise really takes off a lot of that burden.
“I didn’t come here to party; I came here to study and establish myself in this country and in this state. The Pelican Promise has allowed me to continue studying here, and that’s really important to me because if I didn’t have it I’d probably be considering other options.”
Rigoberto, or “Rigo” as he is known, is now a resident assistant who spends his work hours troubleshooting problems students living in the East Campus Apartments may have, and planning events—like an upcoming luau—to help them unwind after class and get to know each other.
But with graduation firmly on the horizon, the time is fast approaching for the mass communication junior to make another decision regarding yet another move and major life change.
Not surprisingly however, given the example his own parents set with the sacrifices they made for him and his sister, Herrera-Zelaya is planning on using his LSU education to help people who are helping others.
“I’d like to get into missions and use what I’ve learned to tell stories about people around the world,” he said. “I’d like to reach the masses with that, and for that reason, I’m studying journalism so I’m able to relate that to the world through print or the Internet.”
After a life spent growing up in Honduras, Metairie, Georgia and Kenner, Rigoberto Herrera-Zelaya is now a bona fide LSU success story. A student who moved 1,000 miles from home only to have to move again because of Hurricane Katrina is now working to help fellow students feel more at home on campus and is preparing for a life after LSU, where he can use his degree to highlight the mission work people around the world are doing.
And he may never have been a Tiger if it wasn’t for a pelican.
“The Pelican Promise has allowed me to remain at this institution where I’ve been able to meet some great friends,” he said. “I’ve gotten involved in the university through organizations; I’ve worked for the Department of Residential Life for the past two years now. It’s opened a lot of doors for me. It opened that first important door, which was coming here, and I really appreciate that.”