Valencia Student Excels as She Reaches for the American Dream

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Carolina Palacio arrived in the United States full of hope. It didn’t take long for those immigrant dreams to be dashed.

Her mother brought Carolina and her older sister to the United States from Colombia for a brighter future. But when the three arrived in Miami – expecting to be embraced by relatives in the U.S. – they instead found a fractured family.

What ensued was a marathon of moves, as the family drifted from one city to another, trying to get a foothold on the American dream.

“We bounced from place to place; the situation was bad,” says Carolina, now 20. Today, Carolina is graduating from Valencia College with honors. But as a 10-year-old immigrant, she and her family struggled to stay on their feet. After they arrived in the United States, they moved from Miami, to South Carolina, then finally to Orlando.

Life at home was hectic and stressful; her mom was working two jobs and wasn’t home much.  The family had gone from living a middle-class existence in Colombia to barely eking out an existence in the United States. “School,” says Carolina, “became my escape.” While other students in her ESOL classes showed lackluster performance, Carolina got very good grades – and her middle-school teachers quickly recommended that she move out of ESOL classes and into advanced, English-language classes.

By the time she was in high school, however, her mom had saved enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment. It was in a terrible neighborhood, and the family slept on the floor for months until they finally got a mattress, but they felt a sense of accomplishment: They were starting to make their way.

At school, meanwhile, Carolina continued to shine, becoming a member of several honor societies and active in many clubs and organizations.

Yet, during her senior year, Carolina’s plans for college were nearly derailed. One day, while riding with a classmate, the car went off the road and rolled over four times. With spinal injuries and nerve damage in one leg, Carolina endured months of physical therapy – at a time when most of her friends were preparing for college. Stressed out and uncertain about her future, Carolina turned to Valencia. The college accepted her into its Seneff Honors College and welcomed her to the Bridges to Success program, which is designed to help first-generation or underprivileged students succeed in college.

Like many Valencia students, Carolina didn’t have a car. So she rode the bus or studied in the library for many hours, waiting for her mother to pick  her up.  Eventually, she landed a job on campus — and saved money to buy a used car.

Meanwhile, in her honors classes, she studied the classics – and was thrilled to go on an honors spring break trip to London with her professors. “Everything we were learning in the classroom, we were able to experience it,” Carolina says. “We went to Stonehenge, and visited cathedrals and talked about the architecture. The art, the museums, the Roman baths.”

As she readies for her next step, Carolina feels blessed to have been a part of Valencia’s Interdisciplinary Honors program. “I have never been in a classroom where I learned so much,” she says. “You don’t just sit there and listen. You are there to think and analyze.”

Carolina has been accepted to Boston University, Florida International University’s honors program and is waiting to hear from Rollins College. She plans to study international relations and journalism.

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