Student Beats Odds to Start College—First in His Family—With Help From Maps IDA

Photo from MJWein on flickr.

Like so many high school graduates, Gilberto Celistino will soon step into a college classroom for the first time. But the story behind Gilberto’s first day is different than most incoming freshmen. From the moment of his birth, Gilberto’s life looked nothing like the typical college track.

“Growing up I saw my parents struggle to get everyday life things,” Gilberto said in a recent interview. “My dad worked seven to seven, Monday through Saturday, and my mom worked night shifts, day shifts, whatever she could get at a local cannery.”

Gilberto’s parents moved with him from Mexico when he was young. But watching his parents struggle to support their family did not leave Gilberto feeling helpless.

“I grew up with the mentality that hard work pays off,” he said. Over the years he saw his family’s financial circumstances improving—they had a few more niceties at home and getting the basics covered was a little less challenging.

Hard Work vs. Challenges

But as the years of high school ticked away and college drew closer, Gilberto was faced with a challenge that no one in his family had ever surmounted.

Gilberto’s parents only finished a few years of primary school before they started working. And his older sister had gotten her GED, but took her education no further. No one in his family had ever been to college.

But Gilberto was determined. He wanted to get a better job than those his parents worked. And he wanted to make them proud after all the hard work they put in to get him through high school in America.

At age 17, Gilberto started working at the same tree nursery his dad worked at in order to save money for college. But he knew it wouldn’t be enough.

As he looked into different loan, scholarship, and grant opportunities, he realized that his circumstances would keep most of them out of his reach. All his hard work would do him little good come the first day of classes if he couldn’t afford to register.

Then an opportunity arrived right at his school.

“When I was about to graduate from high school there was a meeting on campus with a guy named Oscar from Maps,” said Gilberto. Oscar was Oscar Porras from Maps Credit Union—or more specifically the credit union’s philanthropic arm, the Maps Community Foundation (MCF). Porras shared with students a program called an individual development account (IDA), which would allow them to save for college and have those savings matched not just dollar-for-dollar, but three dollars for every dollar the student saved.

Gilberto said he was interested and Porras came to his family’s home to share the opportunity with the whole family. “He came and we started filling out the application that day,” said Gilberto.

Since then Peter Rector, IDA Manager for MCF, has walked Gilberto through everything from applications to placement tests to registering for classes. “He did really well on the placement tests,” said Rector. “He’s a really bright young man. I’ve been lucky to get to know him over the course of the last couple months. I’m super proud of what he is accomplishing.”

The Building Blocks of a Better Life

The IDA program is a partnership between Maps Community Foundation and CASA of Oregon. “We’re working with a handful of participants who don’t have any other source of support,” said Mitzi Smith, IDA Manager for MCF. “They don’t qualify for federal aid and aren’t eligible to take out student loans. Often they have no one in their networks they can reach out to for support.”

Participants in the program can save up to $1,000 per year for three years, and have that money matched three times. So a participant who saves the maximum $3,000 over the course of the program gets $9,000 in matching funds, for a total of $12,000 to finance their education.

The vision of CASA of Oregon, Maps’ partner in the IDA program, is to empower people with “the building blocks for a better life.” That’s exactly how Gilberto sees his IDA. “By going to college I hope to get a better job than my parents ever had,” he said. “Maybe I can even help them out with getting a house.”

Gilberto is interested in how things are designed—especially video games. He hasn’t yet chosen a particular industry, but he is pursuing classes in drafting and design.

And he knows that his younger sister and brother are watching him. “I hope they see a good example to work hard for the future and work hard no matter what,” he said.

He often helps his younger sister with her homework and sees all the examples in her world that might influence her away from college, down a road that looks easier and more fun. He hopes that his example can counterbalance those. “Once she gets to college I’m going to be really proud of her,” he said.

Gilberto is still working at the tree nursery with his dad, putting money away for his education. He starts his first classes at Chemeketa Community College on September 28.

Thinking of his younger siblings and others who find themselves with big roadblocks to education, Gilberto shares his own philosophy. “Never give up,” he said, “no matter how hard it gets—even if you aren’t born in the U.S. or have any other problem. I think there’s a way to get through it. If you want to accomplish it, you can.”

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

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