Stephanie Figueroa isn’t ashamed to admit she was “academically dismissed” during her first attempt at college. And she shouldn’t be, because that initial misstep proved to be far from the end of her higher-education journey.
A few years older and infinitely wiser after she crashed in college the first time, Figueroa would give higher education a second try, this time at Florida Gulf Coast University. To say she turned her academic career around is an understatement. Inspired by a personal race against time and encouraged by an FGCU family of supporters that includes faculty and the university admissions staff with whom she works, Figueroa graduated magna cum laude in summer 2018 with a bachelor’s in sociology.
“I sometimes forget how much I’ve grown through my experiences, and not just academically,” she said. “I needed that time off to cultivate myself as an individual.”
If Figueroa’s educational story ended there, it would be a happy ending. But there are greater accomplishments in the future for a now-prospering young adult who works as a senior evaluator in FGCU’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She has been accepted into a Master of Philosophy in Sociology program at one of the world’s premier universities, Cambridge in England. Her graduate-studies adventure into the Sociology of Marginality and Exclusion will begin this fall with research into how refugees deal with acceptance — or the lack thereof — in countries where they are forced either by political persecution or natural disaster to flee and try to assimilate.
“As a global society, we have issues going on in different countries, and people fleeing those countries,” Figueroa said. “When you don’t look like the typical person in the nation where you end up, what experiences do you have? There’s research on being a person of color in a white society, and research on the difficulty of migrants integrating into society. I discovered there hasn’t been much research on the impact on displaced people, specifically those of refugee status.
“There are so many dynamics … integration isn’t always straightforward, and we need to take that into account when we write policies that impact these people,” she said. “What happens when you come to another country and try to accept the cultural norms, speak the native language, do all that, but still don’t look like the people of that country? You do everything you are asked to do, but still get ostracized. How do you handle that as an individual?”
It’s a proposed study born from Figueroa’s roots as the first American-born child and one of three in a family she describes as working-class immigrants from the Dominican Republic who relocated in New York City, then South Florida in pursuit of a safer life. It was there that the young woman who was an accomplished alto in her high school choir enrolled at the University of South Florida in Tampa and tried to juggle her studies while working three part-time jobs. It did not go well.
When her mother moved to the Fort Myers area for a better job, Figueroa followed, putting her education on hold to work at Target for six years. “I was almost 30 and I decided I needed to go back to school,” she said. “I quit Target with no backup plan.”
A former coworker employed at FGCU helped steer Figueroa toward a job as a program assistant in undergraduate admissions in December 2012, and she started classes at the university the following fall semester. This time, thanks to the help of what she describes as her “FGCU family,” things went differently.
“I had very supportive supervisors and staff in admissions who helped me coordinate my schedule so I could finish my education while working full-time, and I’m very grateful for that,” said Figueroa, who along the way earned two promotions to her current role as a senior evaluator. “My professors, especially in the Sociology department, showed great patience with me. One thing I learned here is not to be afraid to ask questions, which used to feel like failure to me when I was younger. The encouragement has been phenomenal.”
Figueroa’s goal was to graduate in time for her terminally ill grandmother to see her receive her diploma, and she accelerated her course load as she neared completion of her bachelor’s degree in an effort to make that happen. Unfortunately, her grandmother died during finals week in spring 2018 — just two weeks before Figueroa went on a study abroad trip to Italy. “I told the professors they’d have to forgive me if I got emotional now and then,” she said. “However, it was an amazing experience, and I was glad I was able to go. What made it interesting was that it was actually an engineering class, and I really didn’t grasp a lot of the engineering portion, but I would interject sociological input into our discussions and therefore created different conversations. I think the STEM professors appreciated that I brought a different perspective.”
Dr. Mari DeWees, an assistant professor of sociology who helped Figueroa along her meteoric educational comeback — which included undergraduate exploratory study on the relationship between education and socioeconomic status that she presented at the Midwest Sociological Society annual meeting in Minneapolis in March 2018 — said Figueroa “exemplifies the best of FGCU students and the kind of talent on our campus and in the larger Southwest Florida community.”
“It is very exciting that one of our students dedicated to ameliorating the lives of others has been granted this incredible opportunity,” DeWees said. “Her persistence and mettle to seek out research and professional development opportunities with program faculty, and ways to engage in the community as a full-time student and employee, is an example for all of us. Her desire, motivation and work ethic have led her to this point in her academic journey.”
“This point” is being one of about 25 students out of some 20,000 applicants worldwide who get accepted into this graduate program at Cambridge. The appointment begins in October and lasts nine months.
Figueroa’s acceptance to do research at a university ranked second in the world academically behind Oxford comes after she was inspired to apply to Cambridge after listening to Andres Machado (‘14, political science), an FGCU alum who earned a scholarship to a graduate program at Oxford and returned here to relate his experiences. “After he finished, I thought to myself, ‘I can do that,’” Figueroa said.
One of the professors who will mentor Figueroa at Cambridge, Dr. Monica Moreno Figueroa (no relation), is of mixed Mexican heritage, known as a Mestizo. Moreno Figueroa has extensively studied how her own ethnic group views itself. “Her work is aligned with something that feels personal to me,” Figueroa said. “I’m really excited to study with her.”
Figueroa hopes her experience at Cambridge perhaps expands into a doctoral program there, and she talks about further graduate studies in South Korea as a possibility. Incredibly, she has learned a great deal about the Korean language on her own thanks to a passion for watching Korean dramas on the internet, a hobby she originally started in middle school with Japanese shows.
Then there’s Figueroa’s “bigger-picture goal” of working toward leveling the playing field of life for the mothers of the world she feels are “restricted in society from reaching their potential in education and in their careers.”
“The emphasis is still placed on the woman to drop her own life and do everything for the children,” Figueroa said. “And if that’s what a particular woman wants, that’s OK. But I want to work toward impacting policy so that expectations of parenthood fall equally on both men and women. Women shouldn’t have to choose between being moms and their careers.”
While she leaves FGCU at least temporarily for adventures throughout a world that she calls “too interesting not to experience personally,” she’ll never forget the university that “gave me the opportunity and encouragement.”
“There are so many students out there just like me,” Figueroa said. “Anyone who goes a non-traditional route and comes to FGCU can find the same sense of community and support that I did.”
That kind of responsive motivation inspires FGCU faculty such as DeWees who help make it happen. “Honing her academic study in another country and culture will offer her priceless experiences, perspectives and networking opportunities,” DeWees said. “As FGCU increasingly prioritizes global-learning skills for students in order to prepare them professionally and personally for the future, Stephanie exemplifies what our students can achieve and contribute to not only the local community, but the global community by pursuing academic study to address increasingly urgent challenges surrounding topics such as economy, poverty, development, exploitation and inequality.”
Figueroa expounds upon those ideas when she says that as a “citizen of the world, not just the U.S., we have to do what we can for those who can’t. If I can learn how to work toward that, I may not change the world, but maybe I can help get the conversation started so we can work toward making the world what it should be. As a society, we’ve done a lot of good, but we can do better.”