Scholar Spotlight: Shamir Villeda


Carving a new path: One Scholar's journey to the American Dream

At age 10, Shamir Villeda was working in his parents’ butcher shop in Guatemala. By the time he turned 12, he had learned from his father how to run the place — plucking chickens, cutting up sides of beef, supervising three employees and making bank deposits.

Sometimes he’d work 12-hour days. His dad, while demanding, taught Shamir the most important lesson he’d ever learn in his life: “If you work hard, you can be successful.”

He has never forgotten that, and it’s a lesson that has taken him from the marketplace in Villa Canales to the lush fairways of Evanston Golf Club in Skokie, Ill. This fall, he will attend the University of Illinois on an Evans Scholarship. He is a student with a story so unique, it sounds like a movie plot. Money, extortion and murder. A long journey to another country. A new world of golf and caddying.

And finally, an opportunity his parents could only dream of — a free college education at a top-rated state university. “It sounds like I made it up,” Shamir acknowledges. “In this country, the opportunity is there. College will open a lot of doors for me. This will give me a chance to be successful.”

Shamir’s story begins in Villa Canales, a town about 15 minutes outside Guatemala City. Having never liked school, he decided to quit when he was in third grade. His dad supported the idea but told him he’d have to learn a trade. So Shamir began working at his family’s butcher shop. After a few years, he was managing the shop and, thanks to a deal he made with his dad, making as much money as his father. “I didn’t have an education, but I knew how to survive,” Shamir says. “I had a lot of fun.” He recalls his interaction with customers, who were always amazed at his skills, like carrying a 125-pound side of beef over his shoulder.

The fun soon ended. When he was 14, his parents got a letter from a gang asking for money. His father, fearing for the family’s safety, turned over the equivalent of about $5,000. A few months later, the gang demanded more money and threatened to kidnap Shamir and his brother.

This time, Shamir’s father refused to pay. He decided to send Shamir and his brother to the United States. “I said, ‘I’m fine here,’” Shamir recalls telling him. “But my father said we had to go to stay safe and have a better life.”

The brothers left Guatemala in 2006, when Shamir was 14 and his brother was 16. He recalls his father waving goodbye as the bus took off, before dropping his head and crying. It was the last time they ever saw him.

In the United States, the brothers moved in with a Guatemalan friend who lived in a northwest suburb of Chicago. Soon Shamir was working two jobs: washing dishes for five hours a day and then working in a factory for another eight hours.

But Shamir was homesick. Then four months after they arrived, leaving behind their parents and a young sister, the brothers learned their mother and father had been murdered in the butcher shop.

Shamir remembers picking up the phone after a long day of work to hear the sounds of an ambulance and people crying. His face turned white. “I couldn’t function,” he recalls. “I blocked it out. It was like I was unconscious.”

Shamir remained in shock for two weeks. But he soon returned to work, now knowing he had an extra responsibility — as the provider for his young sister back home in Guatemala. Each week, he’d send money to his aunt for her care and schooling. It wasn’t easy but he did what had come naturally to him since his butcher shop days: he worked as hard as he could, as often as he could, hoping that someday, his efforts would pay off.

Shamir was placed into foster care by the Illinois DCFS. Through the help of attorney Alan Lindquist, Shamir gained permanent residency — and new foster parents.

Lindquist and his wife, Stephanie Russell, had always considered adopting kids, and when Lindquist came across Shamir’s case, it seemed a natural fit for them to become his foster parents. They first met him over dinner and talked about what his life back home had been like. Both were struck by his maturity, resourcefulness and determination.

“We just saw something in Shamir,” Russell says. “There’s just a dedication and sense of purpose in his life.” He is a young adult, who despite being dealt a heavy hand, is determined to move forward in life, she says. “It just is in every ounce of his being; he’s willing to go the extra mile,” she says. “You could see that drive in him from the beginning.”

Shamir enrolled as a freshman at Evanston Township High School in 2008. He learned to speak English, thanks to help from his teachers and Russell, who also spoke Spanish. By the end of his freshman year, he was earning ‘A’s and ‘B’s — a notable achievement for someone who had virtually no previous education.

Then one day, his foster family made a connection that would forever change his life. Through business, Russell met Bob Caldwell, a Northwestern Evans Scholar Alum and WGA Director. Caldwell suggested Shamir begin caddying and helped point him in the right direction. “I told him, he’s got to be very patient; he might not get out a lot at first, but to stick to it,” Caldwell recalls.

That spring, Shamir began caddie training — worlds away from the butcher shop and the hands-on skills he had acquired. “I didn’t know anything about golf,” he says. “At first, I didn’t like it. It wasn’t about the game when I started. It was about being able to rake a bunker, watch a ball and clean a ball. But then I began paying attention.”

Golfer Pat Mulhern says he became choked up after he learned about Shamir’s story. “He wants to be great at everything he does,” he says. “He has a quiet drive.”

Now, Shamir loves the game and even plays himself. He became an honor caddie and formed close relationships with some members, like Mulhern. “It’s so wonderful when you caddie for the members and you win their trust,” he says. “Golfers don’t always see their own mistakes, but often caddies can see them. I’ve learned in golf and in life that you can’t succeed by yourself; everyone needs help to make it.”

And then, with lots of people’s help, he applied for and earned the Evans Scholarship. Shamir found out he was a recipient in April. “We were over the moon,” Russell recalls.

Shamir knows exactly what this means for his future. He has many friends and relatives embarking on a different path, and he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. “I feel so blessed,” he says. “It’s a big honor. It’s not just money to go to college. It’s giving me a chance to shoot for the stars.”

Shamir will major in business administration, and he’ll bring a perspective that no one else in the incoming freshman class likely has — as a businessman, running his parents’ butcher shop when he was a child.

But he’s not one to dwell on the past, no matter how tragic his story. “I’m not the only one who has gone through such a difficult life at such a young age,” Shamir says. “I just have to work harder to make it better.”

From his mother, Shamir inherited her sense of compassion. He knows others have stepped forward to help him and he’s intent on helping, too. In his future, he says he’d like to adopt children. And his father’s legacy is his work ethic, which has been the ultimate key to success in his life. “It’s how I learned to work hard,” he says of his father’s early lessons. “Now I want to honor my parents’ memory. I plan to study hard in college and accomplish things that would have made them proud of me.”