Just two months into his long-awaited “escape” to Los Angeles, 18-year-old Ernesto Esquivel-Amores ’19 was ready to pack it in and go home to Missouri.

He was broke, had slept on the beach and in a car, and even after finding an apartment, with only his stipend from a community-service job Esquivel-Amores couldn’t afford both rent and food. He’d resorted to living on peanut butter, and mangos and avocados scrounged from neighbors’ trees.

He was about to give up. And then he met Ricky, an older man on a city bus.

In his mid-50s, wearing a grey sweatsuit and beanie, Ricky turned out to be from England, an orphan who eventually made a living as a boxer, moved to America, lost his way with drugs, and pulled himself back up.

When Esquivel-Amores confided that he was thinking of giving up on LA, Ricky replied with the story of Buster Douglas, who, in 1990, knocked out champion Mike Tyson in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.

“Right now you’re facing your Mike Tyson, which is life,” Ricky said. “You just need to find a way to duck, dive, survive; fight these next couple of days like Buster Douglas did. Because eventually there will be a window of opportunity where life will get tired. And that’s when you go all out.”

From that moment, Esquivel-Amores has done just that.

Today he’s a rising Colby senior and one of the College’s top chemistry students. He’s studied a broad range of subjects and traveled to 11 countries. And he says being homeless in LA is just one of many challenges he has faced, embraced, and learned from in his 22 years.

“As weird as it sounds, I actually enjoy having those heartbreaking moments when you think, ‘Oh, dear God, I think I’m gonna die,’” he said. “They really build character and tell you what you’re made of.”

Ernesto Esquivel-Amores ’19

Ernesto Esquivel-Amores ’19

The oldest son of Mexican immigrants, Esquivel-Amores was born and raised in Jefferson City, Mo. His mom scoops ice cream at a local Cold Stone Creamery, and his dad works at a factory that makes electrical transformers. They didn’t want or expect their son to leave the state.

But from an early age, Esquivel-Amores was looking beyond Missouri. At 15, he began working at a movie theater and used his earnings to travel, including to New York City with a friend, to Boston with a friend and his mom, and to Cleveland with his church’s youth group.

As a high school senior, he continued to challenge expectations by becoming the first in his family to apply to college. When that didn’t work out, his parents encouraged him to work in the factory alongside his dad. While that path would have offered stable employment and allowed Esquivel-Amores to stay nearby, it didn’t feel right to him.

“I had a gut feeling that that route was not one I should be taking,” he said. Through some “curiosity binges” on the Internet, Esquivel-Amores learned about City Year, an organization that places high school and college graduates in urban, “high-need” classrooms around the country to help students stay in school and graduate. Esquivel-Amores was accepted to the program and assigned to work in a third-grade classroom in the Watts neighborhood of LA. His parents reluctantly agreed to let him go.

No one knew he’d started down a path that would lead to Mayflower Hill.

He was hitchhiking home one day in LA and told his story to a car full of strangers. One of the passengers said he knew a woman named Barbara who helped young people get into college. He gave Esquivel-Amores her number.

Barbara turned out to be Barbara Suzaki, a retired consultant who works with several first-generation college-bound students each year. They met at a Starbucks the following week and hit it off. “He was very high energy, with lots of stories to tell,” Suzaki recalled. She gave Esquivel-Amores a copy of the Princeton Review and told him to go home and highlight every institution with a financial aid rating of 90 or above.

For the rest of the year, the pair narrowed down Esquivel-Amores’s list of colleges, working on his essays and financial aid questionnaires and refining his applications.

Of the 11 colleges Esquivel-Amores applied to that year, he was accepted to four—one in Missouri; two in California, and Colby College.

Esquivel-Amores was leaning toward the University of Southern California. It was close to his apartment in LA, he knew students there, and he was even part of a club on campus. But Suzaki was against it, fearing he would end up with thousands of dollars in debt after just his first year.

Colby offered him the strongest financial aid package, and Suzaki believed a small, liberal arts school would better prepare him for graduate school. “[Barbara] used her consulting skills to completely ‘Jedi Mind Trick’ me into the idea that Colby was the college I actually wanted,” Esquivel-Amores said, laughing.

When he told his parents he was going to Waterville, Maine, they said, “We don’t understand any of this. You go from the furthest end of the United States to the complete opposite end. Why?”

“He’s someone who is street smart and savvy and doesn’t get down when things don’t work out.” —Dasan Thamattoor,
professor of chemistry

Suzaki was right about Colby. Esquivel-Amores struggled at first to adjust to small-town Waterville and Maine winters, and the idea that for some students college was a time to work­—but also to socialize. But he’s grown to love Colby and embraces it with characteristic enthusiasm. “I’m always taking that opportunity to explore another avenue, just trying a bunch of stuff,” he said. “You will never be given another four years like this to try so many different things.”

During breaks, summers, and Jan Plans, Esquivel-Amores has traveled to Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Canada, India, and Colombia. While Colby made three of the trips possible, Esquivel-Amores paid for the rest with money he saved working various jobs on campus.

His academic interests are as varied as his travels, as he’s pursued subjects from world music to classics to entrepreneurship to chemistry, his major. Esquivel-Amores is “one of the most successful organic chemistry students at Colby,” said Professor of Chemistry Dasan Thamattoor, pointing out that Esquivel-Amores was lead author on a paper published in the Journal of Molecular Structure, a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate.

But it’s not only academic ability that sets Esquivel-Amores apart, Thamattoor said. “He’s someone who is street smart and savvy and who doesn’t get down when things don’t work out,” he said. “When he finds a fork, he knows where to go. That’s not something you can teach.”

The latest fork may lead yet again down a different path.

In January Esquivel-Amores took a Jan Plan class on entrepreneurship taught by several successful alumni. It changed his view of business—and his plans after Colby. “Before I came to college, I was completely anti-business, thinking [businesspeople are] just looking for ways to put money in their pocket,” he said.

But after meeting a half-dozen Colby entrepreneurs in January, he saw that many are also motivated by a desire to make the world a better place. (He has a couple of business ideas in mind, but for now is keeping them under wraps. Stay tuned.)

And the link between chemistry and entrepreneurship? “Chemistry makes you not just focus on the answer, but to think about how everything interacts. It’s simple, yet you’re combining all these possibilities to create something new.”

In the lab and in life, that is just what Esquivel-Amores has done so well.