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A Doctorate in Determination

July 9, 2009

Silvia Arredondo had no explicit plan to attend college in the U.S. when she visited New York from Guatemala in 1998.

“I’d just graduated from high school and came here on vacation at the invitation of my uncle, who lives in Brooklyn,” she recalls. “Then friends of his made an offer. They told me that if I decided to study here, they would help me pay for college.”

A painful reality to face
Arredondo took the family up on their generous offer and, in January 1999, enrolled in BMCC. But toward the end of that year, the family told her they could no longer underwrite her expenses. She would have to drop out of school.

“I was very depressed but determined to continue my education,” she says. “The problem was that there were no applicable scholarships or financial aid programs. I looked under every rock, but found absolutely nothing.” Then she turned to Professor Sandra Poster in the college’s Department of Speech, Communications & Theatre Arts

“I’d met Professor Poster when I first enrolled and she encouraged me to take Speech 100—Fundamentals of Speech,” Arredondo. “I didn’t want to take the course and didn’t feel I needed it, since my main interest was chemical engineering. But at Professor Poster’s insistence I took it, and it turned out to be an awesome experience.”

Now, as Arredondo faced the prospect of having to return home to Guatemala without a degree, Professor Poster came through again. “She told me about a scholarship at City College open to both American and international students and suggested that I apply for it.” The scholarship was funded by the Grove Foundation, which had been established by former Intel CEO Andy Grove. “He’d come to this country from Hungary in 1956, so he understood the immigrant experience first-hand,” Arredondo says. She was awarded the scholarship and enrolled in City, graduating as class valedictorian in 2003.

“I’d never thought seriously about going onto graduate school,” she says, “but my professors at City felt I was cut out for it and urged me to take the GREs and do whatever else was necessary to apply.”

That fall, Arredondo began graduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. This spring, she received her doctorate.

“I never thought I would make it this far,” she says.

Looking to the future
Ultimately, Arredondo would like to teach at the university level—perhaps in combination with research. For now, she is luxuriating in the satisfaction of having achieving what once might have been considered an impossible dream. She attributes her success to both her upbringing and an innate resolve.

“My parents believed strongly in education and always taught me the importance of hard work and self-discipline,” she says. “Support from you family is essential.” So is an appetite for risk-taking, Arredondo adds. 

“I’ve always been willing to take risks,” she says. “Sometimes they pay off, and sometimes not—but I generally don’t recognize the risk until I’m too far in to back out.”

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