Jeronimo Maradiaga\'s Journey

Jeronimo Maradiaga's Journey

There were competing notions of success in Jeronimo Maradiaga's life: a high school diploma, a job, and a paycheck to help support his family versus years of college and professional school to achieve personal and intellectual goals

By Gerry Boyle '78 | Photos by Nick Cardillicchio

While other first-years arrived at Colby with their parents in packed SUVs, Maradiaga came to Mayflower Hill with Rice, his mentor. His roommate’s parents hugged their son and said goodbye. “I didn’t really think my experience was that bizarre,” Maradiaga said, over pizza on Arthur Avenue. “I thought everyone was going to show up by themselves.”

Rice, Goring, and another of Maradiaga’s teachers bought him clothes, a television, and a DVD player so he had some of the trappings of a kid going off to college, for which he said he is very grateful.

“It still wasn’t my parents,” Maradiaga said. “I had still left my mom a few weeks before going to Colby, my mom had just left [for Honduras]. My brother was here [in N.Y.], homeless. I was here in this pristine place and in a sense I was a part of that, too, but I wasn’t. And I realized I wasn’t. It was very difficult.”

The waves of alienation came early and often. Like most new first-year students, Maradiaga went on a COOT (Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip), trading the comfort of a dorm room and the bountiful cafeterias for a tent and sleeping bag and gorp in a bag. “I was like, what the hell is this?” he said. “Why am I pretending to be poor? Sleeping on the ground, on dirt? This is like poverty. This makes no damn sense.”

The college party scene didn’t make sense, either, not to a guy who had spent his whole life threading through a minefield of drugs and alcohol because that was the only way he would succeed. Where he came from, drunks and druggies ended up in dead-end jobs or worse.

“When I got to Colby and I saw people drinking, I was like, ‘What? What is this?’” Maradiaga said. “I was so disappointed. I thought it was going to be this huge intellectual community where people were all about their classes. I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not Doghead [an annual marathon St. Patrick’s Day party].”

The relative wealth of the students overwhelmed him, as did their stereotypes about the Bronx. Other students assumed he must have gone to a specialized academic high school. One asked him if he was in a gang. And the backdrop to this feeling that he didn’t belong was “an immense amount of guilt,” about leaving his mother, about the luxury of being a full-time student, Maradiaga said. “My freshman year I didn’t allow myself to party or have fun. I didn’t allow myself to be happy.”

Said Sandra Sohne-Johnston, now associate director of admissions and financial aid and then Maradiaga’s Colby Posse mentor, “He came to college as an adult, not as an 18-year-old young man.”

But Maradiaga knew how to be a successful student, and he threw himself into his studies with characteristic single-mindedness. Even there, he felt less prepared than students from suburban high schools and elite prep schools. “Just think about it,” he said. “[In high school] I was going to class every other day.”

While some students come to Colby with vague but altruistic plans to help “save the world,” Maradiaga’s goals were narrow and clear: get a Colby degree, go to medical school, become a doctor, and support his family. But family obligations nearly derailed his plans entirely.

The spring of his first year, Maradiaga’s mother, who had moved in with relatives in Honduras, fell more seriously ill and had to find another living situation. Maradiaga felt he had to bring her back to the United States and help support her. He was going to withdraw from Colby. Then help arrived:

Sohne-Johnston gave him some money; a professor bought his mother’s plane ticket; President William D. Adams chipped in. Maradiaga’s mother was moved to Florida, where she stayed with another of her sons, one of Maradiaga’s half brothers. Maradiaga went on to do a Duke premed program that summer, and returned to Colby for his sophomore year.

But trouble struck again that fall. His mother was still ill. The money was gone. She had to leave the apartment where she was staying. Maradiaga decided to withdraw from Colby and go earn money to help her. Administrators and Colby and Posse mentors urged him to stay, but the need to take care of his mother prevailed.
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  • On July 13, 2009, Maggie Goodes wrote:
    I have had the pleasure of meeting Jeronimo, through Chris and Rebecca, but never knew his story. He is an inspiration to us all. And the people around him, who supported him when things were tough, also inspire me. I wish Jeronimo all the best in his quest to collect the stories of others and look forward to reading them. I also wish him the best in his future studies. What an amazing doctor he will be.

  • On July 14, 2009, Cleveland Johnson, Director, TJW Fellowship wrote:
    We at the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship are proud to number Jeronimo among our 209/10 fellowship class. As this article expresses with such excellent nuance, the Watson Fellowship invests in people, not projects. We also funded this year a student whose difficult childhood forced her to scavenge for recyclables after school to help her family make ends meet. The focus of her year is "The Faces Behind Informal Waste Management" in Egypt, Australia, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Brazil. Our other 38 fellows of this year can be read about at: As with all our Fellows, we firmly believe that Jeronimo's year, rather than being a detour from his life goals, will be broadening and transformative. Just imagine the global perspective, empathy, and understanding he will be able to bring into his future medical career (or into any other career or advocacy work he chooses to pursue)! Already now, after his first weeks of Watson-funded independence in Mumbai, India, Jeronimo is beginning to answer the questions he brought along from his own personal experiences, while learning to ask a completely new set of questions he may never previously have thought to ask. Thank you for telling Jeronimo's "story." If nothing else, it gives powerful testimony why working for socio-economic diversity in the student bodies of small colleges is so important! For all of your alumni and readers, I do hope you will follow up with him after his return.

  • On July 15, 2009, Lady Bug wrote:
    Jeronimo, you continue to inspire us in so many ways. You made my Colby experience something worthwhile and memorable. I will always remember our Biology study sessions- good times. I have no doubt that you will continue to live your life to the fullest. Te queremos muchacho!

  • On July 15, 2009, R. Wilson wrote:
    J is a good friend and clearly one of the coolest people around...Good luck in Mumbai bro!

  • On July 16, 2009, Kate Williams wrote:
    I knew you could do it Jeronimo. My family had the wonderful experience of hosting Jeronimo in 2002 on his trip to Australia. We knew he was special and he has gone on to prove it. Our love and sincerest congratulations are with you now and always. Best of luck and happy times. What a wonderful family you have-worth everything you have worked for. Love, your Aussie family.

  • On July 16, 2009, Kathy Quimby Johnson (Colby '79) wrote:
    Jeronimo, what you have accomplished and what you are doing with your Watson Fellowship is so very important, because socio-economic class continues to divide the world and young people with backgrounds similar to yours need to know that it is possible for them to achieve their dreams. They also need to know that there is pain involved in learning to navigate a different culture. Thank you for sharing your story! I look forward to reading the stories you find on your travels. Thanks to Colby magazine for sharing this story--it's one of the best I've ever read in the thirty years since I graduated.

  • On July 22, 2009, Chidozie Alozie wrote:
    Jeronimo was one of the students who convinced me that I should become a teacher. We traveled to Australia together, and shared a host family. He is remembered fondly in his host community, and by his former group leader. Jeronimo, do you remember what Russel told us at Jumbum? Everyone has their own personal Uluru against which we struggle. Know that you have made the right decisions ... although I don't need to tell you that. I was with Kate in Carrieton this past weekend, and she showed me this article ... we'd all love to claim some of your success, but not for credit for helping you along the way, not that. We would love to have the strength, the conviction to deal with our own personal Uluru's, as you have. I was once the teacher ... but now I'm gonna watch, and learn.

  • On August 4, 2009, Allison Straw wrote:
    Thanks for sharing. Sharing about your life takes guts- especially when you know that not everyone will be able to relate or understand.

  • On August 27, 2009, S.K.B. wrote:
    Jeronimo your story is an insipiration. I am also a graduate of John F. Kennedy High School and I still live in the Bronx. I am trying to accomplish my dreams as well, I can relate to you in so many ways. The Bronx is pretty much the same way you left it, the only time you see changes being made is when elections are here, thats when every politician wants to make a difference. Someday though, I will accomplish my goals and change the Bronx for the better. Someday.

  • On September 24, 2009, Mike Wolk wrote:
    I read this article by accident after filling out a survey. It is the best article I've ever read in this magazine since my graduation in 1975 and was moved beyond belief. I'm forwarding it to my daughter and her husband at Penn State as inspiration while they struggle through their own academic and life difficulties.

  • On September 24, 2009, Georgia Fisher Kearney (Colby '52) wrote:
    Jeronimo what an inspiring story. I wish you the best and give your mother kudos for inspiring her sons. My husbalnd was raised in a tenement in Scotland and his mother inspired her three children to get an education and succeed in life

  • On September 26, 2009, Andrew O-S wrote:
    Jeronimo, the wealth of strength, will, power, high-standards and imagination you have found in yourself are owned, sadly, by very few. It is privilege to know you. You inspire me to have the strength to reach my full potential. Thank you. Just a reminder though, be a little slower on those turns in the kayak.

  • On November 19, 2009, Lee Anna Stirling wrote:
    Jeronimo's presence gives tremendously to the Colby community or any community. Buena suerte, Jeronimo! I look forward to reading your blog with people's varied views of success.

  • On December 3, 2009, Thando wrote:
    to people like me who still have the dream of learning in life to become a lawyer this article is like a sharp carve i learn a lot to it now i know the time for me to let up in life is when my soul depart in may flesh and realize that "we as woman we are like tea bags we see our strength when we are in hot water" i will always think of you man when i face challenges in my path