Jonathan Irizarry made SkillsUSA history on June 27 when he became the first student from Puerto Rico to be elected as a national officer. Being called on stage with the other winners was a moment he’ll never forget, but it almost didn’t happen. Just a few years ago, Irizarry was ready to give up.
“Since elementary school, through junior high, I was bullied,” he explains.
According to Irizarry, some of the other students resented his success in academics and as a leader in the classroom.
“I was considered by the group as a threat. They thought I might be the person who would steal their spotlight and that I wouldn’t let others succeed.”
The situation became so difficult, Irizarry decided to stop excelling in the classroom and participating in extracurricular activities.
“I got to the point where I literally shut down,” he remembers. The student became withdrawn and shy. He thought it was easier to fail and earn the acceptance of his peers than to succeed and become their target.
Irizarry’s life finally changed for the better when he went to a new high school in Guyama. He decided to study architectural drafting at the Doctora Maria Socorro Lacot Vocational High School.
Advisor Yolanda Vazquez introduced him to SkillsUSA. Irizarry was intrigued, but his previous experiences made him fearful of being targeted again.
“At first I was hesitant,” he says. Nevertheless, he believed he would benefit from participation. He remembers thinking, “This might be the organization for me. I can develop myself.”
Rediscovering the courage to lead
Then for the new SkillsUSA member, something totally unexpected happened. “It was like a sign that came,” Irizarry says. “I just stood up and said, ‘I want to run for local president.’ ”
Finding that courage changed his life. Irizarry decided he had to live his life for himself instead of trying to please others. His desire for success returned.
Life immediately improved for him. He met new people, made new friends and learned important new skills.
Later, after being elected to a regional office, Irizarry attended SkillsUSA’s Washington Leadership Training Institute. While there, he was impressed by SkillsUSA’s national officers. Seeing these students on stage inspired him to run for a leadership position like theirs.
“I wanted to represent Puerto Rico in a way that no one had ever done before,” Irizarry adds.
Running for national office can be a grueling process, but the student says he was already prepared. “SkillsUSA made me a strong leader.”
After his successful campaign at the organization’s national conference in Kansas City, Mo., Irizarry now says he can take criticism and learn from it rather than give up. He has this advice for other students: “Don’t be afraid of success. It’s hard to fail, but it’s worse never having tried to succeed.”
He also knows representing SkillsUSA as a national officer is more than travel and being in the spotlight.
“It will be hard work and dedication,” Irizarry explains, calling his elected position “a dream come true. It’s an achievement and dream I will fight for.
I have prepared for it.”
Being the first officer from his home is another thing he’s excited about. “I plan to represent Puerto Rico and SkillsUSA to the best of my capability,” he says.
Looking at him now, it’s easy to forget how far he’s come since his days of being a withdrawn middle-school student. Does Irizarry have any advice for others who are being bullied?
“Don’t give up,” he stresses. “Even if you think the world may misunderstand you or mistreat you, have faith. There will always be someone to help you.
“Just believe, and you will achieve great things.”