, associate professor of biology, remembers the intense guy in her mammalian physiology course, a prerequisite for medical school. Maradiaga, a sophomore, studied hard for the first exam and thought he had the material mastered, Tilden recalled. “He did fine on the test, but he thought he had studied enough to blow it away,” she said.
Maradiaga came in later and they discussed strategies, including studying with other students instead of going it alone. “Something just shifted,” Tilden said. “That second exam, he just blew it away. The highest score in the class. And this is with fifty students. He did the same thing on the final.”
While he continued to focus on medical school, Maradiaga started connecting with professors more and seemed to be changing his sense of himself, Tilden said. He began to emerge as a leader among her students. Maradiaga worked in Tilden’s lab and did a Jan Plan research course at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. When other Colby students there left the kitchen a mess, it was Maradiaga (who knew what it was like to do that job, day after day) who helped the cook clean up. He also gave the other students a stern lecture, saying that was not the way you treated people. “It certainly never happened again,” Tilden said.
She refers to Maradiaga’s “sense of righteousness.” It’s something that other faculty noted, including Kim Besio, associate professor of East Asian studies. Besio said Maradiaga was “just a bulldog” when it came to mastering Chinese, which he took for the first time as a second-semester sophomore. She said the then 21-year-old reminded her not of other students she’s taught over the years, but of her own father, now a retired veterinarian.
“My father was also one of the first people in his family to go to college,” Besio said. “Jeronimo has that dignity.”
A Watson on the Margins
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.
Maradiaga, a 2009 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, chose the latter, and the decision still leaves him with conflicting feelings of guilt and accomplishment. For Maradiaga, who aspires to be an emergency-room doctor, "the road to success was confused." He knows there are others like him around the country and the world, young people with "marginalized backgrounds," shaped partly by family and tradition and partly by schools, television, the Internet. Do they attempt, Maradiaga asks, to follow the model pushed by the groups in power (education, material wealth, social status)?
"For a portion of America, and the majority of the world for that matter, this narrowly constructed definition of success involving a college education and monetary wealth is utterly unattainable, and in many cases not even desired," he wrote in his Watson proposal. "Where are these stories?"
For the next year, Maradiaga will travel the world (India, Jordan, South Africa, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic) in search of such stories. The plan is to go to each place and determine what the society defines as success. Then he will talk to high school students marginalized because of their race, religion, and/or socioeconomic class. He will also interview school administrators and parents. "In form, these success narratives will resemble my Watson fellowship personal statement. In content, I can only imagine how they will differ," Maradiaga wrote.
He plans to take photos, videotape interviews, and post them on a blog. "This, in a small but significant way, will be done in order to provide a diverse, more inclusive definition of success," he wrote.
As he has explained countless times since receiving the fellowship, he will not be writing a paper. "The Watson is about the process," Maradiaga said. "It's about you changing." -GB
That dignity, say those who know him, may come from seeing college not as a rite of passage but as a gift and responsibility. Maradiaga is mindful that he is an exception among countless other disadvantaged people.
That knowledge often left him in the minority in class discussions and debate surrounding campus issues related to treatment of minority students. He also stood up for the minority community on issues, including protest of a Cinco de Mayo party T-shirt that featured a caricature of an illegal immigrant.
“For him it was important that people understood that you can’t just imply that issues of wealth aren’t important, that to attend an institution like Colby means you’re privileged, to not let people forget that,” said Travis, Maradiaga’s friend and fellow Posse Scholar, who now works with an education nonprofit in New York. “It’s something that can get lost at Colby.”
Despite the obstacles, Maradiaga seized academic opportunities with relish. He did biology research and the Duke premed internship. He studied in Taiwan through a Freeman Foundation grant in the summer of 2006, and he completed an intensive language program at Beijing University during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Accepted to a Johns Hopkins University master’s program in Chinese in Nanjing, he deferred enrollment for a year to do his Watson project. Johns Hopkins and medical school will follow, Maradiaga says.
“He’s an intellectual who wants to know everything he can know,” said Goring, who still is close to Maradiaga and considers him part of her family. “He reads, he talks, he thinks constantly. He couldn’t be contained in a smaller world.”
But expanding his world has come—and continues to come—at a cost.
Maradiaga worked on his Watson fellowship proposal for 18 months and thought about it even longer. Several of the people in this story read it in various drafts. “I’ve never wanted anything so badly,” he said. “When I got the e-mail that I was a Watson Fellow—I can’t even describe it in words. I was happy, but it was subtle and quiet. It was really a dream come true.”
“Everyone I speak to from Colby—my teachers, my mentors—they’re all really happy. That individualist notion of success.”
And his family?
“My mom is never going to agree with my version of success,” Maradiaga said. “She thinks I’m failing in some ways, that I’m not successful by living up to my obligations to the family.”
Six years after he broke the news that he was leaving to go to college, he had to break the news that he was leaving again, this time to travel around the world. “When I told my mom, she hung up on me,” Maradiaga said.