First-generation student thrives despite baby’s health

Photo by April Knipp

April Knipp

It can be difficult to balance work and school, but adding a premature baby to the equation can make success feel impossible.

At age 19, then UNO sophomore Maria Gonzalez-Guerrero became pregnant. Seven months into the pregnancy, something went wrong. Blood tests revealed an elevation of white blood cells, an indication of infection.

A cesarean section was ordered for the safety of Gonzalez-Guerrero and her child. In April of 2017, two months premature, Ariana was born at just 1 pound 15 ounces.

Ariana was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis, an inflammation in the intestines that can be life-threatening. Surgery was required to remove part of her intestine.

“Her first surgery went well, but they had to do another one because they found that more of her intestines were dead,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “The second surgery went bad. I had no idea what was going on. They were telling us all these things and I didn’t know what to do or what to think. It was bad news after bad news. It was horrible.”

Ariana has yet to leave the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and has undergone a total of five surgeries, but that hasn’t broken Gonzalez-Guerrero’s spirit.

“She’s always positive. Here she is dealing with these enormous things and you would never guess,” student advisor Connie Sorensen-Birk said. “Don’t let her quiet demeanor fool you. She is a great leader.”

Gonzalez-Guerrero is a first-generation college student and has always valued education. It is important she keeps moving forward now more than ever because of her little family, she said.

“I know my parents sacrificed a lot just to be here in the U.S. and there’s always pressure,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “I actually really enjoyed school growing up. I like reading and just learning. That still continues to be true.”

Gonzalez-Guerrero is majoring in public health and minoring in English. She recently declared her degree after talking to a friend that was studying public health. She took the class “foundations in public health” and really enjoyed it.

“I have all A’s right now, which I’m really proud of,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “It’s been really tough. The only thing is, with school and work, I don’t have enough time to visit my daughter as much as I want.”

Giving back and volunteering is important to Gonzalez-Guerrero. She is the secretary for Students Against Hunger, has worked on multiple Habitat for Humanity projects and volunteers during UNO’s Three Days of Service each fall.

“There are a lot of people out there that don’t have things,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “I just want to help where I can. I like helping to address issues.”

Sorensen-Birk said it was at a Habitat build that she first met Gonzalez-Guerrero.

“She was one of the hardest workers there,” Sorensen-Birk said. “She can dictate to other people in a way that she’s also involved, and she does it in such a quiet and self-advising way.”

Gonzalez-Guerrero is hopeful Ariana will be able to come home this spring.

“It’s crazy to see how big she is now because we were told that she wouldn’t get to this point,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “They told us she wouldn’t make it and they told us even if she makes it past a day or two, that’s a miracle itself.”

Gonzalez-Guerrero has a way of always looking at the bright side of every situation. Despite multiple challenges, she takes time to count her blessings.

“Just being in the NICU, you think you have it bad. Then, you see all these other families,” Gonzalez-Guerrero said. “Just a few weeks ago, another baby was admitted that was not doing well. Another baby had her organs all out of order, none were where they were supposed to be. I feel very fortunate.”