Adriana Casillas, 21, of Northfield, is preparing to sell most of her belongings at a yard sale, as she prepares to move to New Hampshire for a master’s degree program in conservation biology at Antioch University New England, where she earned a President’s Merit Scholarship.
But it’s more than just a moving sale. It’s a fundraiser for wildlife conservation in Zululand, South Africa, where she hopes to volunteer and conduct research through Amanzi Travel.
“I talked to the staff from Zululand and I really like the work they do,” she said. “They work with lions and cheetahs and vultures and all of them are endangered or threatened … If I can’t be over there, I still want to help somehow.”
In the next two weeks, she will pass out posters for the event, collect donations and get others inspired about research and conservation efforts in Africa.
Casillas was born in Tijuana, Mexico. Her family moved to California when she was young.
About 13 years ago, Casillas, her mom and her younger brother moved to Northfield, where her grandparents lived. Her parents are now divorced, she said.
“When I moved to the U.S., I was undocumented,” she said. “I didn’t know what that meant, because I was 5. I didn’t know what being undocumented was, meant or how it would impact my future. It wasn’t until high school that I was realizing that I couldn’t do a lot of what my friends could do, like get a permit, get a license, get a job, apply for loans or student aid.”
With those obstacles in mind, she packed in 22 credits for two semesters, as a Post Secondary Enrollment Options student at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., during her senior year at Northfield High School. That allowed her to graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology, five semesters after her first day at the Twin Cities institution, with financial help from scholarships.
“I graduated this past December and that same month, I became a resident of Minnesota,” she said. At that time, she said her mom and brother became U.S. citizens.
Casillas said she can apply to be a citizen at 25, at which point she can spend extended periods of time in Africa, where she wants to end up professionally.
As a kid, Casillas was inspired by “The Lion King” and the wildlife adventures in Animal Planet’s “The Jeff Corwin Experience.”
“I’ve know that I wanted to work with animals since I was little,” she said.
While Casillas — who has no problem picking up aggressive opossums or catching and releasing turtles for research — had a taste of working with wildlife locally at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville, and at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge in Erskine, she dreams bigger.
She said she wants to help protect endangered and threatened species from poaching in Africa. Her Antioch adviser conducts research in Rwanda, where she said she may work next summer.
On the side, Casillas said she takes photos of wildlife at the Cowling Arboretum at Carleton College and practices her talent in art, drawing lions, rhinos and other creatures.
Her art was the first thing mentioned by one of her mentors, Beth Berry, the high school coordinator of TORCH (Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes).
The next was her “long-seated love” for Africa.
Her motivation to make that dream happen was clear. Casillas took the 22 college credits during high school, which Berry initially thought was too large of a workload.
“She was actively always seeking and always looking at how she could do this,” said Berry, who works with immigrant and low-income students. “I think many of these kids see a closed door. And she would take any little opening and make the most of it.”
Casillas worked as an intern for NAVIGATE, a leadership development program for immigrant young adults in Minnesota, and put together an event about planning for the future, according to Berry.
Berry said that Casillas is a role model for others coming from similar situations.
“She’s always been so grateful,” she said. “She fought her way through and says thank you, which is really neat. She has not had an easy life.”
Casillas said that her hard work is all for Africa. A glance at the black outline of a lion tattooed on the 21-year-old’s right arm, reveals her true passion.
“I want to work with lions,” Casillas said. “I want to make my own lion sanctuary or reserve and I want to be a non-profit, too. I eventually want people to help me.”
Reach reporter Kaitlyn Walsh at 645-1117, and follow her on Twitter.com @NFNKaitlyn.