Just three years after graduating from Downers Grove North High School, 20-year-old Christopher Espinoza is returning to the district after being elected to the Community High School District 99 School Board on a platform that aims to bring the student perspective to the decision-making body.
“People criticized me for my age and lack of experience, but I think those things help me understand better,” Espinoza said. “I know I don’t know all of the answers and that I have to grow into this role, but I can do that without coming in with preconceived notions.”
Espinoza said his inspiration to run for a seat on the board came from multiple places, including his childhood and his experience in the district as a student. During his high school years, Espinoza’s parents were going through a divorce, leading him to begin high school in San Antonio, Texas. He transferred to Downers Grove North at the start of his junior year, he said.
Espinoza had to grow up quick, he said, and didn’t have much help at home when it came to figuring out what to do post-graduation. His mother had received a high school diploma, while his father, he said, received nothing past an eight-grade education.
While Espinoza believed the district tried to guide him in making post-graduation decisions, he also said at times it felt it was assumed that he or his parents would possess the knowledge he needed to succeed, which wasn’t the case. Unaware of the Common App, a universal and generally fee-free college application tool, and FAFSA, the application for federal financial student aid, Espinoza said he made mistakes that he hopes to prevent other students in similar situations from making.
“I didn’t feel like I was given a full picture of what I could do,” Espinoza said. “I made mistakes, and many of my friends did, too, accruing mass amounts of debt, transferring schools, changing majors or ending up in trade schools. College isn’t for everybody, and the district needs to acknowledge that. We need to provide perspective.”
Espinoza’s campaign team for the election was made up of a number of Downers Grove alumni with whom he graduated and identified with this message, he said. Campaign manager Patrick Brooks, treasurer Georgi Kirikov and social media manager Sophia Di lorio all graduated from Downers Grove North, Espinoza said.
He said his campaign team went above and beyond.
“[We’ve] each dealt with navigating difficult post-graduation plans, and [my team] believed in the message we were putting out because they wanted to see our community improve and grow to be as inclusive and successful as possible,” Espinoza said. “We’re just a group of driven young adults trying to make a difference. Even if it’s just a small step, it’s in the right direction.”
Espinoza said he hopes to inspire students to look at him and see someone who was in their shoes not long ago. Coming from a lower socioeconomic background, Espinoza said he hopes to show students in similar positions all the things they can achieve if they put their minds to it.
Espinoza said he recognizes one seat on the board does not hold much power in terms of policy, but he hopes to bring conversations to the board that are relevant to students. Being on the school board, he said, gives his perspective more credibility.
“Student loan debt is a huge issue right now, and my age and perspective allow me to see things the district and school board might not see right now because I’m living it,” said Espinoza, who will be entering his senior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall. “Education is not just about the district looking good on paper.”