College of DuPage alumna Meggie Hernandez-Zayas is the recipient of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association’s 2022 Pacesetter Award.
The annual honor recognizes the accomplishments of a recent community college graduate who has overcome life’s obstacles, focused on humanitarian service, and continued supporting education and community colleges.
Hernandez-Zayas, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, is a graduate of COD’s Paralegal Studies program and advocates on behalf of survivors. She was honored to be nominated for the ICCTA Pacesetter Award and thrilled to receive it.
“The Pacesetter Award will be a constant reminder of the positive experience I had at College of DuPage and the new path I was able to take because of the amazing professors, leaders and fellow students in the COD Paralegal Studies program,” she said.
For more than three years, Hernandez-Zayas endured domestic violence and sexual assault from two abusive relationships. She struggled with severe anxiety, night terrors, flashbacks and panic attacks.
“I never went to court. I never filed a police report. I was one of the 60 percent of survivors who never would report the crime that was committed against them,” she said. “I had to start figuring out how to begin my transition from victim to survivor and learn to navigate the lasting impacts of the trauma I experienced.”
Hernandez-Zayas started her own photo series called Reclaiming Me, which aimed to shed light on the after-effects of trauma and to capture the experiences of survivors while showcasing their strength, power and beauty. She is also a member of the Family Shelter Service Speaker’s Bureau and the Smack’d program at Pillars Community Services, which raises awareness for direct access to help for individuals and families in crisis.
Becoming an advocate and educator, she began fighting for survivor-focused legislation in Illinois and met, interviewed and supported many survivors who never received the help they needed. This forced her to look back on her own experience when she tried to tell the police.
“I went with my parents, and the police officer started the meeting by referring to my father as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Sir,’ but called my mother ‘Mom’ and treated her as if she was an idiot,” she said. “Even though he told me I was overreacting, he continued to ask me some questions and as I looked at my parents, I remember the officer saying, ‘Don’t look at them, you’re over 18, they can’t help you. Pretend you’re signing a car loan.’ That moment just punctuated my experience so clearly. My abuse, my pain, both physical and mental, that I had been experiencing for years was reduced to a car loan by the person who was supposed to be able to save me.”
Hernandez-Zayas, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurial and Small Business Management with a minor in Spanish from North Central College, eventually found a positive relationship and married. Observing the work that she was doing on behalf of survivors, her husband suggested that she become a paralegal.
“I wanted to be a part of the system that failed me—and so many survivors—so effortlessly,” she said. “That is my driving force behind everything I do. I was viciously and violently silenced for four years of my life and decided I wanted to devote my life to others who were and are silenced as I was.”
While researching programs, Hernandez-Zayas liked the fact that College of DuPage’s Paralegal Studies program was approved by the American Bar Association. She found her professors passionate and encouraging as they fostered an open environment for all students. She met other survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault at COD and provided resources to a student in crisis.
Hernandez-Zayas graduated from COD in 2020 and is a paralegal at Farooqi & Husain Law Office. She continues her advocacy work and remains connected to COD’s Paralegal Studies program. For example, she spearheaded a fundraiser for the Paralegal Studies Emergency Fund, which helps students who are facing a crisis obtain emergency assistance—including transportation to and from classes—so they can remain in school.
“Honestly, the Paralegal Studies program is a community, and I am not just saying that to adhere to the standard language most colleges use. I genuinely mean it,” she said. “Attending College of DuPage was, by far, one of the best educational experiences I have ever had.”