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

Andrea Tilden, 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.

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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