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.