When I worked at the USF College of Engineering, I wrote articles about research that were published statewide and nationally and prepared the alumni newsletter. I also worked with students, helping both individuals and 26 student societies.
A student who worked in Dean’s office, Ramón, walked into my office one day to tell me he had been fired from his co-op job. Students did not get fired from co-op jobs.
Ramón told me he had seen pictures on someone’s desk at work and quickly identified specific places in Puerto Rico, where he had been born. What he didn’t realize was that the office manager, a woman who always bragged about how much she knew about Puerto Rico, had just dismissed the pictures a little earlier that day as, “Just some places in Puerto Rico.” Ramón’s identification exposed her lies, and within a week, he was dismissed.
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “It was just political. It won’t affect the rest of your life.”
I was wrong.
Ramón got another co-op job, this time with Siemens, a German electronic controls manufacturer with a Bradenton, Florida branch. He fell in love with the company. One day, he told me he would really enjoy it if they had a foreign exchange student program.
“Ask them,” I told him. The next day, he was back in my office, telling me that Siemens had a foreign exchange student program, but it wasn’t open to people from the United States.
“Then, ask them to open it up,” I said.
A few days later, Ramón came back into my office. “They opened the program up and invited me to participate,” he told me. “But they told me it was going to cost $10,000 to $15,000.”
Ramón had been raised in the projects. His mother, sister, and mentally handicapped uncle lived in subsidized housing. His mother boxed shirts for Nutmeg Mills. She probably made ten to fifteen thousand a year, if that.
“Go back and tell them you’re going,” I told him. “Then, we’ll figure out how.”
Co-workers at USF chastised me. “How could you ever tell him he could go? He doesn’t have that kind of money. That’s irresponsible.”
“He’s going,” I told them.
For the next week we worked on his budget, trimming projected costs down to $5,500. “If you have to carry out buns in your pockets from the company-subsidized lunch for your dinner, you’ll do that,” I told him.
We applied for scholarships, loans, and grants, gathering money toward our goal. A week before Ramón was scheduled to go, we only had $5,200—$300 short of our no-wiggle-room minimum.
“Now what?” Ramón asked.
“Now we go to the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce.” A couple of phone calls later and we were scheduled to speak.
When we arrived, I was called to the front of the room. I told the audience of about fifty men what Ramón was trying to do. “This is the kid who’s done everything right,” I said.
Four minutes into my speech, a man in the back of the room started pumping his hand in the air.
“Sir, did you have a question?” I asked.
“You said Ramón needs $300 to be able to go?”
“Yes,” I said, confused.
“I’ll pay it,” he announced. The whole audience stood and applauded.
The next day, I picked up the man’s check and delivered it to Ramón. He cashed it, and the following day got on the plane to go to Germany. Ramón was Siemens’ ideal foreign exchange student. They paid for his senior year at USF. They were paying for him to pursue his Master’s degree until he got too busy for them selling postal equipment all through South and Central America.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Ramón’s uncle had started talking to the air conditioner, so his mother took him back to Puerto Rico so he could get help from someone who could understand Spanish. After she got back there, Ramón sent her money. She took the money and went to nursing school and had three job offers before she even graduated.
At one point, I asked Ramón whatever had given him the idea he could do what he did.
“A lot of the kids I grew up with, they’re either dead or in jail,” he told me. “My mom always told us we were different.”
Different enough to dream.
Are you willing to be different to achieve your goals?