Puentes’ new college home leads to degree

The path to earning a college degree was anything but traditional for Ellie Puentes. The first-generation college student initially attended a New York college but had to leave in April 2022 because of health issues linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. Through the generosity of Bill and Carol Latimer of Union City who fully paid her room and board, Puentes found a new college home at the University of Tennessee at Martin and received her bachelor’s degree in Spanish on May 4 at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. The Latimers joined Puentes and her family members to celebrate the achievement.

Puentes is Mexican American, was raised in Chicago’s South Side, and considers her aunt, uncle and cousins as parents and siblings. She attended public schools until receiving a scholarship to attend and later graduate from Nazareth Academy. She excelled in academics and soccer in high school and began her college journey in 2020 as a pre-med major in New York. Then COVID-19 changed the world and life for Puentes.

The college required students to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and Puentes originally sought a religious exemption, which was denied. She reconsidered, decided to take the vaccine and had no related health issues with the first Pfizer dose. Such was not the case following the second dose, which she said caused her to become ill and eventually be hospitalized. Because of the reaction, including ongoing symptoms that she tied to the vaccine, she applied unsuccessfully for a medical exemption when the college required the booster and was not allowed to continue.

Enter Bill and Carol Latimer who read that Puentes had to leave her New York college in April 2022 because of health issues linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. The couple wanted to change another life, so at Bill’s request, the university reached out to Puentes, first through social media, followed by several more text-message exchanges and then a phone conversation that explained who the Latimers were and what they wanted to do. Puentes delayed responding but soon received an Instagram message from then-university chancellor Dr. Keith Carver confirming that the offer of assistance was legitimate. A campus visit followed in July, which sealed her decision that UT Martin would be her new college home starting that fall.

“Carol and I wanted to show Ellie that there are other sections of the country where people not only tried to help students, especially first-generation students, get their degree, but they also have compassion for the needs of others,” Latimer wrote in a 2022 email. “Using the blessings that God has given us, we have been able to help over 100 young people get their college degree, and most have been first-generation students.”

Puentes’ original goal was to become a plastic surgeon, but her experiences led her to change majors upon entering UT Martin and instead prepare for law school, become an attorney, and help those who experience similar circumstances. She had a new college to attend and a new career goal, but the transition was anything but easy. Puentes arrived at the university knowing few people and with no personal transportation to explore her new surroundings. During her first weekend in Martin, Keith Carver and his wife, Hollianne, accompanied Puentes to the local Walmart to purchase school supplies and other necessities.

“UT Martin initially felt like an odd fit due to the cultural and environmental differences I experienced coming from a bigger city,” she said. “However, it eventually became the right place for me, largely due to the Southern hospitality I encountered here. The warmth and friendliness of the people made all the difference.”

Among others reaching out to her were faculty members who knew her situation and “went above and beyond to help me adjust, knowing that I was far from familiar surroundings.” She was heavily involved in campus life at her former college, and she approached UT Martin no differently. Her interest in university life opened doors to new relationships that helped her settle into her new college home and community.

“I joined the Student Government Association, serving as a senator for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and I was president of College Republicans,” she said. “These roles not only allowed me to engage deeply with the campus community but also contributed to student life in meaningful ways.”

Campus involvement was important, but Puentes’ top priority was to earn her degree, and she took full advantage of opportunities to maximize her experiences as a Spanish major. She spent February to June 2023 studying in Spain in a study-abroad immersion experience. She lived with a Spanish family, learned to speak the language that is different from her native Spanish, studied and even traveled outside the country.  

“This opportunity was particularly significant as it mirrored  the challenges I anticipate facing in law school – rigorous coursework, mastering Spanish, legal terminology, and the need to think critically  and adapt quickly,” she said. “The experience of studying complex subjects like law and rhetoric in Spanish also gave me a taste of what practicing law might entail in different linguistic and cultural contexts, which was invaluable given my career aspirations.

“Beyond academics, living in Spain allowed me to make friends from diverse cultures, including Spanish, Italian and French peers.”

Another important outside-the-classroom experience happened last summer when Puentes interned at an immigration law firm in El Paso, Texas, that specializes in immigration, naturalization and amnesty cases. She assisted with cases and attended hearings at the El Paso Service Processing Center. Puentes shared her knowledge about immigration and the U.S. border crisis during a campus presentation before May commencement, sponsored by the university’s Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages. Dr. Daniel Nappo, professor of Spanish, was Puentes’ academic advisor and helped to arrange the internship.       

“Ellie wants to become an attorney, practicing either immigration or international law. …” wrote Dr. Daniel Nappo, a longtime UT Martin faculty member, in his introductory remarks for the presentation. He described Puentes as “one of our most accomplished students” and added “what I admire most about her is her patience, her can-do attitude, and pluck.”

Puentes combined her knowledge and research with the internship experience as she offered an overview of the U.S. immigration situation. The presentation included a live call from a Venezuelan immigrant friend who talked about his own experience coming to this country. Her solutions to the immigration issue included the U.S. helping stabilize economic conditions in other countries, reforming the asylum system and educating people about immigration.

“This (internship) experience was eye-opening, allowing me to see firsthand the profound impact legal assistance can have on lives of individuals striving for a better existence in a new country,” she said. “The ability to provide a voice and legal support to these individuals might be a path I choose to pursue as a lawyer.”

May 4 was a special day for Puentes, her family and the Latimers who Puentes said “have become more than benefactors – they are like family.” No matter the career path she chooses, Puentes will always remember Bill and Carol Latimer’s kindness that came at a critical time in her life.

“Their belief in my potential not only helped me navigate a difficult time but also ensured that I could continue to be a positive example for my siblings and cousins,” she said. “This has been a powerful reminder of the kindness and support that can change a person’s trajectory.

“I thank God every day for bringing them into my life, for they have not only restored my faith in my future but have also shown me the enduring power of community and passion.”

The Latimers “paid it forward” to help Ellie Puentes realize her dream to earn a college degree. Don’t be surprised to see her “pay it forward” many times over in a career that positions her to help others who need someone to care. 

PHOTO: Ellie Puentes receives her degree from UT Martin Chancellor Yancy Freeman Sr. She is wearing a sarape that represents her Mexican heritage and was given to her by the Latimers.

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