That’s how Juan Carlos Aponte Ortiz described his move from Puerto Rico to Watertown, Tennessee—population about 1,500—when he was 16.
“But here we are. So I’m grateful, really grateful, for the opportunities that were given to me because a lot of people didn’t get the same opportunities that I had,” Aponte said.
Those opportunities include four years at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he enrolled as a first-generation college student and, through perseverance and the indispensable help of others, will graduate Saturday with a degree in political science.
“I’ll be walking across the stage, and it seems like yesterday I got here,” he said.
Aponte’s own experiences at UTC led him to become deeply involved with student-oriented, peer-mentoring programs on campus. He has worked with Student Support Services, Student Success Programs, the Office of Student and Family Engagement, the Center for Women and Gender Equity, and the Center for Wellbeing.
He has been a peer mentor in MOC Academy, which works with first-year students who, like him, are men of color.
Before starting his freshman year, he enrolled in the Moc Up summer program, designed to give first-gen students a smooth transition to college life. He’s now a peer mentor in Moc Up.
“I attribute a lot of my success to that program. It is just tremendous,” Aponte said. “It really did instill, at least in me, a sense of community and a sense of investment in my future.”
He moved to the United States in 2017 after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. His mother said he could stay on the island, which was still a wreck, or he could move to the U.S. to live with his aunt in Tennessee.
“My mom sat me down and she laid the cards on the table. She put the decision in my hands, but it was kind of like, ‘This is what you’re doing,’” he recalled with a smile, “so I just packed up and left.”
Moving to Middle Tennessee was a culture shock, especially since he was one of only eight Hispanic students in Watertown High School, which is about 40 miles east of Nashville.
“We were really close. We had to be,” he said. “We did everything together, so it was not as lonely as you would think because you find people along the way, and I was blessed with good people.”
Although Aponte will have a bachelor’s degree in hand, he’s not leaving UTC. In fall semester 2023, he will start working on a master’s degree in public administration at the University. He was accepted to graduate programs at both UTC and the University of Georgia, but decided to stay in Chattanooga.
“I’ve worked with student programming; I’ve worked with different departments on campus. I really love the work; it’s something that I truly enjoy,” he said.
“But I’m also not closing myself to other opportunities that may arise. I think that public administration will make me a rounded individual that will allow me to stay here if I want or take other opportunities if I want.”
Aponte said he finished his undergraduate life having learned a powerful lesson: Commitment.
“I don’t think that this, by any stretch of the imagination, is easy. It takes being committed to go through everything that you have to go through as a student and all the financial struggles and all the stuff that’s stress-inducing and stick with it,” he said.
“You find motivation and you find a way to keep going no matter how hard it is, no matter how big the project might seem. You keep chipping at it until it comes down.”
If he had a piece of advice for new students, he’d “steal” what he was told by Jason Harville, assistant director of Student Success Programs: “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”
“Talk to someone,” Aponte said. “It can be hard. It can be scary, and maybe you don’t know who to talk to; but if you need help, you need to seek it out because nobody knows what you’re going through.
“So please, please, please talk to somebody. Because, in my experience, people are more than willing to help around here.”