Thousands of college seniors around Boston, and thousands more around Massachusetts, graduate this month and go into the world. This Friday and last, WBUR profiled a few of those seniors whose stories we found remarkable. In our second of two reports, we meet Ruben Sepulveda, a young man down on his luck when a chance encounter at a Holyoke gas station turned his life around.
RUBEN SEPULVEDA, 36, HOLYOKE
Holyoke Community College
Three years ago, Ruben Sepulveda was in a truly low place in life. Homeless on the streets of New York City, he was sleeping on trains and buses and in parks.
But rock bottom came when Ruben lost visitation rights to see his baby girl.
“My daughter was about a year and a half,” he recalled. “I would go see her on occasion and my baby’s mother didn’t like the fact that I was bouncing around from here to there, no place to go.”
Despite not having seen his parents in 15 years, Ruben could think of nowhere else to go but their home in Holyoke. But moving home, at 32 years old, he felt lost. He was doing some writing, but he couldn’t find work and was constantly fighting with his parents.
Then one afternoon Ruben walked into a gas station to get a cup of coffee.
“I was depressed because I was writing at that time something for my daughter,” he remembered about that day. “It was kind of like my side of what had happened in my life and what not.”
So to see a woman standing in line with a big smile on her face annoyed Ruben. He challenged her on what she was so happy about.
The smiling woman was Aliza Ansell, and she happened to be the director of adult education at Holyoke Community College.
“I had just come from a professional development training of probably one of the top educators in the country and I was pumped!” she said. “And I started telling him about it, I started talking about how this educator in the LA school system really believes that kids can excel despite their backgrounds. And we actually got into a full philosophical discussion about parenting and can kids really succeed if they don’t have good parents.”
Ruben pushed back on that idea. “I had my issues with my parents,” he said, “and I was just like, you know, maybe parents are the ones to blame when things go wrong.”
After that day, the two continued to meet and held these long conversations on everything from parenting to the nature of the universe to physics. Aliza became something of a mother figure to Ruben and, eventually, she convinced him to check out Holyoke Community College.
Ruben agreed to take the placement test and scored much higher than he — or anyone at the school — expected. Before he knew it, Ruben found himself back in a classroom for the first time since he dropped out of high school at the age of 16.
The day he returned to school, Ruben was scared. “I was old,” he said. “I was terrified, I was like, oh my God, I’m going to sit in this classroom full of young kids and I’m going to stick out and everyone’s going to know.” On top of that, he worried that he wouldn’t be as sharp or as fast as his younger classmates, that everything would take him longer. But none of that turned out to be true.
“That first day in class, I just knew that I could do this,” Ruben said. “I just felt this happiness that I haven’t really felt in a long time. I was like, ‘wow, this is it then, I’m going to school.'”
Just a month before class started, Ruben had finally found a job, working the overnight shift at a motel in town. “Usually when I got into school at about 8 in the morning, I had energy, I didn’t know where it came from,” he said. “But toward the end of the day, then I would be exhausted. But I was so happy to be in school in the mornings, it didn’t even bother me.”
Quickly, Ruben wanted more than what Holyoke Community College offered. He wanted a four-year school. Not just any school — one of the nation’s top colleges. Through a tutoring program run by Aliza, Ruben had met students from Amherst College, and he wanted that education for himself.
A couple years later, he got it. Ruben graduates on May 28 from Holyoke and he has already begun classes at Amherst. He is studying psychology, because he says he wants to better understand the mental health issues in his family and the effect they have had on his life. He is hoping to get back visitation rights to see his daughter soon, who is almost 6 years old now.
Ruben says he still can’t believe he is a student at Amherst College. “It’s ridiculous. I’m waiting for like a refrigerator to fall on my head,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t believe it. Sometimes I have to stop and look around and think about just a few years ago I was in a whole different world.”
Aliza and Ruben are forever analyzing why it was their chance encounter that changed his life.
“Why was it me, why was it this moment in this gas station?” she asked. “Neither one of us really have an answer except it happened.”
Regardless of why, the conversation they started that fateful day has come full circle.
“Ruben’s question is: Can people make it without parental support,” Aliza said. “And he did make it without parental support. He made it 100 percent without that.”
So, in the end, Ruben has proved himself wrong. “You can make it without your parents,” he said. “If you have people like Aliza and the army of people that I’ve had that have been there. They’re like, ‘Good job Ruben.’ You know, sometimes that’s all it takes. ‘Good job Ruben.’ ”
Ruben was part of the state Department of Higher Education’s “29 Who Shine,” a group of public college and university students honored for academic achievement and community engagement.
Last week, in WBUR’s profiles of graduating seniors, we met Beatriz Rivera, a youth activist, and Ross Caputi, an Iraq war veteran who is now outspoken in the anti-war movement.