Fernando Carrillo is an expert at embracing new opportunities and the unexpected rewards that follow.

He graduated from Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (EICC) in May 2023 with an Associate in Science – the first in his family to accomplish this milestone. He crossed the stage just weeks after he was recognized with the Gerard F. Koch Memorial Award, Outstanding Chemistry Student. And he left the campus fully prepared to transfer to the University of Iowa and earn a bachelor’s in civil engineering.

“It feels nice to be the first in my family to make this mark,” he said before the Commencement Ceremony at Muscatine Community College (MCC). "It feels good to know I’ve lived up to the expectations my parents had of their kids.”

Carrillo’s parents were a young couple when they settled in the U.S. Their goal was to start a family and give their children a better life, one free from the limitations they would otherwise experience in Mexico. As a first-generation American student, Carrillo took advantage of every opportunity.

He completed dual credit courses while attending Muscatine High School, graduating with 20 EICC college credits under his belt. “I was already on track to get my degree,” he said, which made his decision to finish his associates at MCC an easy one.

Carrillo initially planned to transfer and earn a bachelor’s in construction management. While taking General Chemistry I, he realized he was pretty good at it, and enjoyed it, too. He signed up for General Chemistry II and switched his career goal to engineering.

Fernando Carrillo accepting award from Biology Professor Marie Ripslinger-Atwater.
His hard work caught the attention of Biology Professor Marie Ripslinger-Atwater. She chose him for the 2023 Gerard F. Koch Memorial Award. “It was unexpected, but it was also pretty cool to win,” Carrillo said, “because I didn’t come here with the idea of taking General Chemistry I and II, but I ended up taking both.” 

Carrillo said his EICC courses were challenging, but manageable. He was able to grasp new concepts and build on that knowledge with more rigorous courses each semester. He feels ready and prepared for his next step, he said. “EICC has set me up pretty good for what I should expect when I start at the university.”

His time at MCC went beyond academics. Student activities and relationships expanded his perspective, too.

Carrillo met MCC Business and Economics Professor John Dabeet while taking dual credit courses in high school. “I took his macroeconomics class, and I thought he was funny. He’d talk about how he only slept four or five hours every day,” Carrillo said, adding at the time he wondered if that was true.

Then, while at MCC, “I was in some clubs with him and was part of a committee as well, so I got to see up close just how hard he works and how it pays off for him,” he said, adding he no longer questions the professor’s sleep schedule and admires the way Dabeet fights for what he believes in. “He definitely had an impact on how I view things,” Carrillo said.

While at EICC, Carrillo attended student events and joined MCC Young Democrats. His academic achievement was recognized by Phi Theta Kappa, the International Honor Society for two-year colleges.

Carrillo’s most memorable experience at MCC was a service project. He joined his peers and hosted a game night for local Hispanic and Latino families. Between games of Jeopardy and smashing goals on the soccer field, the students let the families know an EICC education is an opportunity available to them, too. “We wanted to teach them a little bit about the college,” he said, adding they even offered a scholarship as a prize.

Carrillo’s EICC education was more than he imagined, and he hopes other students discover that, too. “Take advantage of the events and other opportunities,” he said. “I went into a lot of stuff not expecting much,” he said, adding he realized afterward the big impact it had on him, his goals, and how he sees the world. “And that was unexpected.”