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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A Harvard degree is impressive by any standard but for one woman overcoming overwhelming odds to get there, it was also validation of her parents’ sacrifices. And nobody knew she would end up mentoring a young woman whose life paralleled hers in numerous ways.
Maria Carla Chicuen is a mentor and author of the book Achieve the College Dream. Her dream was to attend Harvard. Born in Cuba, she settled with her family in South Florida in her middle school years.
“We came with a dream, especially to achieve an education that would allow my sister and me to move forward through the careers that we chose. That was really the ultimate sacrifice that my parents made, was for us,” Chicuen explained to CBS4’s Rudabeh Shahbazi.
Chicuen did make it to Harvard, where she worked as a recruiter in the admissions office, helping prospective students like her.
She went on to earn degrees from Harvard and the London School of Economics, then got at the World Bank, working on higher education access in Latin America.
Now, she works in the president’s office at Miami-Dade College, always striving to help others like her achieve their academic dreams.
One day, she got a call from her friend, a teacher in Miami, who told her about one of her students, Deborah Gonzalez.
“I had to run to my husband and tell him, ‘Look at this girl, this star. If there is anything I can do to help her, I have to do it.’”
Deborah’s life seemed to mirror her own; a Cuban immigrant, also looking after a little sister, who arrived with no English skills, in a family struggling to pay the rent.
“I felt an impotence that was incredibly frustrating. I decided that I wanted to learn, no matter what,” Deborah explained. “And that’s when I decided to just focus on my academics and do anything in my power to go forward. I knew my parents had sacrificed their entire lives, in Cuba, in Mexico, and even here, so that we could go to school.
As a 12-year-old, determined to learn English, Deborah walked to the public library where she and her sister listened to story time with kindergarteners. The first English she learned to speak and read.
“That summer I started reading all kinds of books. I think I read most of the books in that library for the children’s section and eventually I decided to start moving up.”
She continued to challenge herself, taking more difficult classes, excelling in school, and getting involved in leadership opportunities. But college seemed unobtainable until she met Maria.
“Someone who comes from a family who has not really had access to higher education before, parents who don’t speak the language, parents who work really hard from morning to night and still can’t really afford to send me to college, not even a community college, how could I? And that’s when Maria told me, believe me, there are more ways than you can think of,” said Deborah.
The two met throughout her high school years, working on resumes and college applications, figuring out financial aid.
“Deborah is probably one of the smartest people we’ve all ever met,” said Maria. “She has this very rare power to move people to do good.”
Maria even sent Deborah the first draft of her book, which she wrote for students looking for a path to college.
“Just reading the first chapter, it just gave me this jolt of optimism. I felt like I could do anything. Even though I was in the streets, in an old t-shirt and old jeans, selling sweets to people who didn’t really believe in me and thought I was a failure as a teenager, many of them even communicated that, at that moment, I just felt like I could do anything,” Deborah explained.
And then it happened; an acceptance letter for Maria from Harvard.
She knew exactly who to call first.
“I called her and I started laughing and crying at the same time,” said Deborah.
“And Deborah called me, and I immediately started crying,” said Maria. “I could only see myself just seven years earlier, getting the same emails from the university, and that moment, and I know for her it’s the same, because our family stories are so similar, it’ so much more than college acceptance. It’s the validation of your family’s sacrifices. It’s the certainty that you can provide your family a better future, that you will have the tools to do more for our community and our world.
Deborah heads to Harvard in the fall. She wants to find a career that will merge her interests in the sciences and social sciences.
Maria says the hard part will be how to figure out where to channel all of her interests, talents and passions.
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