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

Jeronimo Maradiaga with his family on campus on Commencement Weekend. From right are Maradiaga's mother, Rosa Alicia Aleman, his brother, Oscar, and Oscar Maradiaga's wife, Julia.
Jeronimo Maradiaga with his family on campus on Commencement Weekend. From right are Maradiaga's mother, Rosa Alicia Aleman, his brother, Oscar, and Oscar Maradiaga's wife, Julia.
Within a week he was in New York City. He had no place to stay, no job. His mom and brother were essentially homeless, staying in motels in Pennsylvania and Florida. He stayed in a hostel, spent another night in a homeless shelter, made his way to the Brooklyn home of a close friend, Rebecca Travis ’07, another Posse Scholar. “I was all over the place,” Maradiaga said.

Recalling the pain of that time, he sighed. Paused. Took a deep breath and continued.

It was Sohne-Johnston who again came to his aid, he said. Her sister’s fiancé worked for a big Manhattan law firm. He got Maradiaga an interview with the human resources department there. Maradiaga went and talked to them, but they said they had nothing for him. “I explained the situation. At that point, I was crying. I was like, ‘I’m homeless. I need a job. Can you please help me out? I’ve done everything right in life. I need some help.’”

His plea got him a referral to a temp agency. He told his story again and eventually got placed as a file clerk at another Manhattan law firm. The fiancé collected dress clothes from colleagues and Maradiaga went to work. The job paid well but he needed more money to set up an apartment for his mother, so he got a job at the front desk of a gym, working nights. He was working 90 hours a week, saving everything he could, tapping the law firm’s experts to help him navigate the health-care bureaucracy on his mom’s behalf.

All the while he told himself not to forget what he had left behind. “I was making money but I said, ‘Don’t settle for this. Don’t lose sight of school. This is not what you want.’”

What Maradiaga wanted was contentment, and he realized that for him that came through his studies, his intellectual exploration. This was at a time when his mother finally was eligible for Social Security disability. He and Oscar set her up in Miami: food, cell phone, money in case something went wrong. She was set, for the moment. But the experience caused Maradiaga to reconsider his own life. “I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a job, necessarily. For my own sanity I had to redefine success. I had to redefine how to be happy. Otherwise I don’t think I would have made it through.”

He returned to Colby that January and found that he valued things even he had taken for granted. “The luxuries,” he said. “A place to stay and food.”
Maradiaga’s home was a single in Colby Gardens, a temporary dorm in a former convent. But as he was released from the day-to-day demands of his overwhelming family obligations, he found himself exhausted from his grueling pace in New York, crashing emotionally, unable to even go to class. Like a marathon runner he had crossed a finish line and fallen. “He did what any normal person would do,” Sohne-Johnston said. “He buckled.”

Again he packed his duffel bag. “I was getting used to it,” he said, flashing a smile. “A hobby of mine.”

Maradiaga stayed in Brooklyn with Christie Howard, Rebecca Travis’s mom. He enrolled in an emergency medical technician course to upgrade his certification. When he looked around his class, he saw people who weren’t educated but were very smart. He read constantly and broadly. And he reassessed his goal-oriented life.

“It was always about getting to college, it was about graduating,” Maradiaga said. “It was about becoming a doctor, never being content with what I had. When I came back to Colby finally, I had a better head on my shoulders. … It was okay for me to take care of myself.”

But he also was more acutely aware of his marginalized status. In his job hunt, he had been turned down because he had no permanent New York address, but he had no address because he had no job. At Colby he had to explain repeatedly, he said, why he couldn’t submit W-2 forms from his parents. And when he returned from leave, most students assumed he’d left to travel.

“Someone said, ‘Did you leave for good reasons or bad reasons?’ I actually appreciated that. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, were you hot-air ballooning over Africa?’ It wasn’t that assumption.”

But Maradiaga also knew he wasn’t alone, that every city, every country, every continent has countless young people like him, people who are outside of the mainstream, separated by poverty, race, ethnicity. What are their dreams, he wondered. What are their notions of success?

And the seed of what would be his Watson proposal was planted.
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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