In the last two decades, the number of U.S. college students who study abroad has more than tripled, leading to a generation of young people with a heightened sense of global consciousness. Richard Esparza, a College Possible program alumnus, is a member of this generation. Born of immigrant parents; a triple major in international studies, Spanish literature, and Latin American Caribbean and Iberian studies; and a study abroad participant, Richard’s global outlook and experiences are perhaps one reason he, like half of all Millennials, believes he has the opportunity to make a difference in this country.
“I think my background and experiences will help me make a difference in the future,” Richard says. “They have definitely helped me create a voice for myself and for those who are in similar situations.”
While Richard shares many of the attributes of his college peers — academic excellence, a focus on global citizenship, a commitment to making a difference in his community — he also represents a too-small cohort of U.S. college students from low-income backgrounds. Only 12 percent of low-income individuals earn a bachelor’s degree in the U.S., and it’s not because of academic weakness. Richard is, in fact, a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of only 1,000 students selected each year for the award that covers all college expenses, including study abroad. Without that scholarship, however, his path would have been different.
“Although college was always in my plans, College Possible completely changed my trajectory. It made sure I did it right and that I was informed. I would not have been a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and I probably would not have been able to get into my dream school without the help of College Possible. Today I am debt-free because of that and was able to experience so much in college.”
Richard’s dream school was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which he graduated in 2015. Although he had plans to pursue a law degree after graduation, he chose service to his community instead. “I had agreed to volunteer on a panel for new AmeriCorps members at College Possible. During the panel, one of the Corps members asked me what I was doing next and, honestly, I had no idea! I was applying for jobs but none of them really interested me. Someone recommended I apply to be a Corps member, so I did just that and, pretty soon, those people who were listening to me speak about being a student in the program became my coworkers!”
“It all seemed like a spur of the moment thing, but deep down I was very excited to join the team, to give back to the organization that helped me so much and to be able to serve at my former high school.”
Richard served as a senior coach with College Possible Milwaukee for two years. During his first year, he was a coach at both his alma mater, the Milwaukee School of Languages, and the Hmong American Peace Academy. He went on to serve at Riverside University High School and as an enrollment coach for two summers.
Today, Richard applies the skills and talents he developed both in college and as an AmeriCorps coach in his position as an admissions counselor with Milwaukee School of Engineering. He sees echoes of his own family and background in his students and is committed to helping them reach their goals.
“As a high school student, I was very focused and took school seriously,” he says. “College was always in my plan and my parents were very supportive. However, the concept of going to college was easier said than done — no one in my immediate or extended family had gone to college, and none of my older friends had gone to college. Regardless, my mind was in the right place and my family supported me, even to the point where my father said he would sell our home to help fund my education. That perfectly demonstrates one of the biggest issues with the college process: the lack of information for low-income students. Thankfully, College Possible was the solution. They were able to teach us the process, take us on campus visits that we would not have been able to do and assist us through the whole process.”
And that process has led to opportunities that Richard had never dreamed of, like studying abroad. He lived in Madrid, Spain, during his semester abroad, and was fortunate to travel across Europe, deepening his understanding of international issues and enhancing his already heightened sense of global citizenship and his place in the world. And that is exactly what a college education is supposed to do. As Richard says, “Never in my life did I ever think I would see those places and things, but college made that a reality.”