Going to college can be an exciting time, but for some students it also can be challenging because of personal or financial hardships. Some students who are graduating from Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) this Saturday overcame a number of obstacles to complete associate degrees and move toward a bachelor’s degree. Here are three of their stories.
Sofia Calleja’s family came to the United States in 2001, just 20 days before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. That event made them wonder about their decision to move to the U.S. When they arrived they did not speak English, but Calleja’s father knew enough to get by. They lived with family in Georgia for a short time, but when things didn’t work out, Calleja’s family moved to Lexington where her father was working in the horse industry. They had very little money and no place to live, but they were determined to create a better life for themselves.
Calleja, who was eight years old at the time, said she worked hard to learn English so she could keep up with her classmates.
“I was in third grade, and I remember my mom staying up with me with a Spanish to English dictionary and helping me do the homework for hours,” she said. “I was in ESL until the beginning of fifth grade but I was pretty fluent after the summer going in to fourth grade. It was difficult, and I got frustrated a lot. The only time I knew what was going on [at school] was in Math and the time that I went to ESL. However, I did not fall behind, and I had great ESL teachers as well as a great group of third grade teachers at James Lane Allen.”
Calleja was a good student who took advanced placement classes at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. In addition to attending college, she also has several part-time jobs. She works in an after school program at Maxwell Elementary, babysits three little girls in the morning and has just begun working at a restaurant and wine bar.
She is graduating with an associate degree in arts. She participated in BCTC’s Blue+ program, a dual enrollment partnership between BCTC and University of Kentucky. The program is designed for BCTC students who intend to earn an associate degree and transfer to UK. Blue+ students pay the BCTC tuition rate for the allotted 12 hours of UK courses they can take while pursuing their associate degree at BCTC. Her freshman year at BCTC, Calleja also took advantage of a program that allows BCTC students to live in a UK dorm.
She plays on the UK rugby team and is planning to continue her education at UK majoring in psychology and Spanish. She said she’s glad she began her college career at BCTC because she’s paying for school herself and BCTC is more affordable. She also liked the small class size.
“When I lived in the dorm I had a friend who was taking the same math class at UK that I was taking at BCTC,” she said. “There were 15 students in my class and his class was in a big lecture hall. I helped him because he didn’t understand the material and said the big class was intimidating. I tell people to go to BCTC.”
Just after turning 18, Charlie Nelson lost both his parents. His mother died from a brain aneurism and seven months later his father died from pneumonia. Nelson had two younger sisters that he had to look after and figure out how to support. The business his parents owned in Baton Rouge, where the family lived, supported not only Nelson’s immediate family, but also other family members who worked there. With both his parents gone, the business took a big hit, he said.
After the death of his parents, his sisters lived with family members, and Nelson worked to pay their way, which included living expenses, school supplies and uniforms. Nelson had nowhere to live, so he lived in his car for one year. He had a friend in Lexington so he decided to drive from Baton Rouge to Lexington for a visit. He liked what he saw and within three weeks was living in Lexington. After suffering the loss of both parents and their grandmother, Nelson’s sisters decided to stay in Baton Rouge near friends and family rather than move to Lexington.
He wanted to go to college and investigated enrolling at the University of Kentucky. He was still considered an out-of-state student so he couldn’t afford it. That’s when he enrolled in BCTC.
“I was taking classes online and working two jobs,” he said. “There were times when I worked so many hours that I had to decide whether to use my free time to sleep or do homework.”
Eventually, he took classes on campus. Nelson credits Mike Hardin, his computer science instructor, and Charlene Walker, vice president of Multiculturalism and Inclusion, for motivating and supporting him. Walker told Nelson about the BLINKS program, a transfer collaboration between BCTC, the LINKS organization and Kentucky State University. The program allows students who earn an associate degree with a 2.8 GPA or above to be awarded full tuition to Kentucky State University for their undergraduate degree. Nelson jumped at the chance to enroll and is now taking classes at KSU. He is graduating from BCTC with an associate of applied science degree.
In addition to being a full-time student, Nelson is working on a NASA research program through UK and doing an internship at Kentucky Housing Corporation. After completing his bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in math, Nelson plans to work toward a master’s degree and eventually earn a PhD. His ultimate goal is to have his own tech company.
Looking back on his journey, Nelson believes a higher power was looking out for him.
“It was nothing but God,” he said. “It must have been because of the state of peace I had through it all.”
When she was in elementary school Brenda Vanegas never saw herself as a college student. And it’s no wonder. When she arrived in the United States at age six with her grandmother, Vanegas didn’t speak English. Her family moved many times, and she attended four Lexington elementary schools. No one in her family had ever finished high school, much less college. But Vanegas overcame all of those challenges and is graduating from BCTC with a 3.8 GPA.
In addition to attending school full-time, she also takes care of her two younger sisters in the afternoon and works temporary jobs to help support herself and her family. A member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Vanegas said she always was a good student and spent a lot of time in the library when she was growing up.
“The librarian knew I was only 13, but she told me I seemed older, more mature,” Vanegas said. “I had many obstacles and grew up too fast.”
Vanegas said her mother was always adamant that Brenda would go to college because she never had the opportunity. Vanegas’s mother dropped out of school to work on the family ranch and wanted more for her daughter. In addition to her mother, Vanegas has received support and encouragement from many people along the way, including public school teachers who believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself. Her high school teachers pushed her to take advanced placement classes even when she told them that she would not be attending college.
“I’ve always had supportive teachers,” she said. “That was good for my self-esteem and self-confidence.”
She said she was bullied in middle school and also lost a cousin who was like a sister. The cousin’s father kidnapped her and took her out of the country seven years ago. Vanegas has not heard from her cousin since.
“I went through depression,” she said. “My mother took me to a psychologist who helped me work through the depression and anger.”
So now, Vanegas has decided she would like to become a psychologist. She will graduate with an associate degree in arts and transfer to the University of Kentucky to complete a bachelor’s degree. She has taken advantage of the Blue+ program, a dual enrollment partnership between BCTC and UK. The program is designed for BCTC students who intend to earn an associate degree and transfer to UK. Blue+ students pay the BCTC tuition rate for the allotted 12 hours of UK courses they can take while pursuing their associate degree at BCTC.
She originally planned to attend UK, but decided it was too big and too costly. Her high school history teacher told her about BCTC and introduced her to Erin Howard, the Hispanic outreach coordinator. There were many times, she said, that she wanted to give up and quit school, particularly after her grandfather passed away. But Howard encouraged Vanegas to keep going and reminded her that her grandfather wanted her to graduate and have a better life.
“Erin is understanding and enthusiastic,” Vanegas said. “No matter how busy she is, she’ll help you.”
Vanegas has a screen saver on her phone that says: “Never let go of your dreams.” She said she looks at it often and even has it written on her bathroom mirror. Although college was not originally part of that dream, Vanegas eventually saw that it had to be. Now she is completing her first degree and is looking forward to the next step in achieving her dream.