GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — As a 20-year-old in Mexico City, even in her most implausible dream, Adriana Arroyo-Herrera couldn’t envision her future journey.
She was at a crossroads. She wasn’t earning a lot of money as a teacher and had two children to support. She had spent a brief time in Nebraska working in factory jobs but couldn’t speak any English.
“When I was in high school in Mexico, I took a language,” Adriana recalled. “The language I took was French.”
That wouldn’t help her much when she moved in Grand Island in 1991. Her first job at Swift & Co. didn’t require any English because her co-workers were mostly Latino, too.
But Adriana, now 49, knew she had to learn the language. Encouraged by her cousin, Hope (Soto) DeLeon, she began taking English as a second language classes in 1992 in what are now the Old Walnut Apartments.
“I used to go to ESL classes from 9 to 12, from 1 to 3 and from 7 to 9 — every day,” she said. “It was so horrible not knowing what people were talking about. I wanted to learn.”
So she learned — and then learned some more.
This past May, Adriana earned her master’s degree in counseling from Doane University. That same weekend, she received an Outstanding Alumni Award from Central Community College in Grand Island. And just last month, she was named one of five Distinguished Alumni by the Nebraska Community College Association.
Amidst all that, Adriana — who’s the clinical supervisor and a drug and alcohol counselor at Friendship House, a 20-bed, adult male halfway house — opened her private counseling practice in October at 325 W. Fourth St. She is one of four or five bilingual mental health therapists in Grand Island.
“I used to think, ‘Oh my gosh, why am I doing this?’” Adriana said. “But as soon as I got through school, it was so good to be able to share, to be able to help people.
“It is a privilege to be who I am because God is using me his own way, to touch people’s lives,” she added.
She remembered a conversation with a nurse while volunteering at the Grand Island Clinic.
“She said I would never get to go to college,” Adriana recalled, because she was an immigrant with limited English skills. “I wanted to prove her wrong. I wish I could remember her name, because I would have sent her invitations to every graduation I’ve been a part of.”
Besides her recent master’s degree, those would include an associate of applied sciences degree in counseling at CCC and a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Bellevue University. Those came after she earned her GED at CCC and held jobs at Swift, Gibbon Packing and Overhead Door, the latter often requiring 10-hour work days during her seven years there.
“It took me forever to get my associate’s,” said Adriana, who became a U.S. citizen in 2007. “To me, getting my associate’s was the hardest one because I knew so little English.
“I took a class about addiction, and it really intrigued me. It’s become a passion to learn how addiction works.”
Adriana credits much of her success to people who inspired her educational journey — longtime friend Yolanda Nuncio, former Hope Harbor Executive Director Aaron Ross, Doane instructor Michelle Smith and Joyce Meinecke, CCC human services teacher.
“She came from Mexico as an immigrant not knowing English and now can write and speak at a master’s degree level,” Meinecke said. “Her intelligence showed from the beginning. She’s willing to learn and face challenges. She’s overcome some amazing things.”
“She has a very long and determined story,” said Nuncio, who helps immigrants earn their citizenship. “She has worked very hard to achieve the goals she continuously sets for herself.”
Adriana is the second youngest of 10 children. Eight still reside in Mexico City; sister Ana Arroyo-Herrera has joined her in Grand Island. Adriana and Ana last visited their family in Mexico City — including their mother, 90-year-old Elvira Herrera — in September.
“For the first time in 18 years, all my brothers and sisters were there together,” she said.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Do you miss Mexico?’ and I do,” Adriana said. “But when I’m in Mexico, I miss Nebraska more.”
Adriana and her husband, Keith Stoltenberg, have three children — Bryton, 22 years old; and twins Daniel and Adrienne, both 20.
She hasn’t ruled out furthering her education even more. Perhaps a doctorate?
“Now it’s a maybe,” she said. “I’m not saying I will, but it’s a maybe.”