By Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, Team Lead, Dell Scholars Program
In order to save money, Sergio, now 30, started his college career at a two-year community college and later successfully transferred to a four-year university, walking out with a diploma in business administration from San Diego State University.
Many low-income students have a similar plan; relatively few actually make it work. Sergio is the poster child for carefully and successfully managing the tricky transition. With guidance from his high school’s AVID college-readiness program, Sergio was able to map out a detailed plan to ensure his finances would be in order and his community college credits would be accepted at San Diego State, putting him on a path to earn his desired major within four years. “I really had to manage everything carefully to be where I am right now,” Sergio says.
Sergio’s successful transition is all the more notable given how he had emigrated to the United States—at age 15—from Bucaramanga, Colombia. His only glimpse of the U.S. prior to that life-changing move was a trip to Disneyworld at age 11. As a high school sophomore, Sergio moved to California with his mother and younger sister; his father stayed behind in Colombia. Sergio took on a father-like role for his sister, four years his junior. “It was very difficult. You don’t know how many boyfriends I had to kick out of our house,” Sergio says with a laugh.
While Sergio wasn’t the only Spanish-speaker in his Orange County high school, he was the only Colombian. He had taken English courses in Colombia, but struggled to fit in to his new home. “In high school and college I felt like an outsider sometimes,” Sergio says. “I was sometimes scared to talk or give my opinion because I was afraid people wouldn’t understand me because of my English skills. And the culture here itself was so different.”
Despite this, Sergio thrived. His AVID teachers encouraged his college goals. “That support was one of the things that really pushed me to figure out what to do with my life,” Sergio says. “It was so important to have someone who believed in me.”
While his parents wanted him to get a college degree, they made it clear that they couldn’t afford to pay; it would be Sergio’s responsibility to find a way. Wanting to avoid excessive debt, he collected several scholarships and juggled a part-time job during high school and college.
Sergio not only found a way to earn his college degree, he then went on to earn an MBA from the University of Dallas, once again balancing paid work (this time full time) with his studies. “Getting a college degree made me realize how much I have to work for what I want from life,” Sergio says.
As part of his college journey, Sergio realized the importance a mentor can make, finding one in an accounting professor at San Diego State and drawing on the support of the Dell Scholars network. Sergio himself became a mentor of sorts, to his younger sister (who finished college and now works in Europe), as well as several friends, including a fellow Colombian immigrant who now works in banking in Atlanta.
Today, Sergio works as an accounting manager for Sally Beauty Supply in Dallas. His Spanish skills are an asset, getting him deployed to places like Puerto Rico and Mexico. (Things may come full circle; the company recently opened a store in his native Colombia too.) “I get to see globalization in reality,” he says.
Sergio is now married and owns a house in Dallas. He hopes to become a company controller or chief financial officer. While many of his friends from high school are already building families, for now, Sergio is focusing on his career. But, once the time comes, one thing he’s certain of: His children will go to college. “For me, it was accomplishing something I’d always dreamed of. I want that for my kids too. Definitely.”
Since the Dell Scholars program began in 2004, they've told the stories of many high school seniors just starting their college journey. But what happens on that journey? What challenges do they face? What changes for students once they have a diploma in hand? And what changes for their families and communities, too?
Getting a college degree isn’t the end of the story for our students. It’s just the beginning. Dell Scholar alumni stories show the ripple effects that can emanate when just one person’s path changes. For many students, a college degree breaks a generational cycle of poverty and myriad related challenges. It’s a game changer for students, families and society at large alike. Here, you have heard one of the 1,400 Dell Scholar graduates talk about her journey and where she is now. And, perhaps even more importantly, where she’s headed. (Read the introduction to the series here).