As with so many immigrant stories, Juan Gallego’s is at once both ordinary and extraordinary. Facing the threat of persecution from paramilitary groups in Colombia, where he was born and raised in a small town just outside Medellin, Gallego and his family fled their homeland and sought asylum in Massachusetts 15 years ago.
There, the family faced a different set of challenges. Starting over meant having to learn a new language, new customs, and a new way of life. Growing up in Chelsea, a city just north of Boston that has a Hispanic majority and the greatest concentration of poor families in the state, Gallego had to also contend with his parent’s divorce and financial constraints as he was raised by his mother and sister.
Later, as a football coach in college, he met students who faced hardships similar to those he had seen or experienced in Chelsea: crime, hunger, a broken home, language and cultural barriers, lack of school resources, and mental health disparities.
“These devastating disparities to the wellbeing and future of these students many times tested my leadership and motivated my passion for public service,” said Gallego, who is now a fourth-year political science student at Northeastern.
Gallego may not have had the opportunity to make a difference in his native Colombia, but his life experience has spurred him to address through civic engagement the chronic issues in his adopted community. He hopes to use his education to run for office—and eventually, the governorship—someday.
Although Hispanics represent the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in Massachusetts, there are only five state legislators who identify themselves as Hispanic.
“As a lifelong resident of the most diverse city in Massachusetts, and a young Latino immigrant, the representation gap is the issue I feel compelled to address as a leader and public servant,” he said. “We must bridge this gap by empowering the Latinx community through our democratic institutions and providing them with the opportunity to grow and strengthen our state.”
In 2017, Gallego led the formation of the Chelsea Human Rights Commission, and plans to build upon that experience in order to advocate for disenfranchised communities with the civic organization, Voto Latino. After graduating from Northeastern, he plans to work as a field organizer in the 2020 presidential campaign while continuing to increase voter participation among people in disadvantaged communities.
“Thereafter, I hope to become a congressional aide, where I will further immerse myself in the details of policy-making,” he said. “Ultimately, after gaining this important experience, I will be confident in my decision to pursue a joint degree in law and public policy.”
Gallego has been named a Truman Scholar. The scholarship is a national award and the premiere fellowship in the United States for those pursuing careers as public service leaders.
The award recognizes exemplary academic abilities, as well as demonstrated leadership and the drive to serve the public. It provides funding for graduate study, mentoring, and connection to a national network of public service leaders. Former Truman Scholars include Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“I am both honored and humbled to be a Truman Scholar,” Gallego wrote in an email from Sevilla, Spain, where is studying this spring. “To receive the support of the Truman Foundation will further advance my academic, personal, and professional development.
“But more importantly,” he stated, “it will provide me with a platform, and endless resources, to continue to advocate for disenfranchised communities in Massachusetts and elsewhere.”
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