It is hard not to smile when you see Maria Cordova’s eyes widen in surprise or hear her shrieks of excitement caught on cell phone video. It was the moment she learned her daughter, Carolyn, was going to attend Florida Gulf Coast University — a major feat celebrated by the university community and beyond when the video went viral.
“It was hard to keep a secret because my mom and dad are the first people I go to,” said Carolyn Cordova, now in her junior year at FGCU. “They are my cheerleaders through everything.”
Without her parents knowing, she applied to FGCU and was accepted in spring 2019. She held the secret close for weeks, even intercepting welcome packages in the mail at home. Cordova wanted her acceptance letter to be a surprise gift for her parents to open at her dad Hector’s birthday party.
“I was so excited. FGCU was my dream school,” Cordova said. “When I got in, I wanted to do it big because my parents worked so hard to give me the best education.”
In the video, Cordova’s grandmother is filming while her parents open a big box wrapped in red paper. As it is torn open, an eagle balloon pops out, followed by green and blue star balloons. Cordova’s parents look confused as they dig deeper into the box. Her mom pulls out a blue T-shirt and reads it aloud, “FGCU dad.” Then, it clicks.
“Are you serious?” Maria Cordova exclaimed in the video, followed by screams and happy tears. While hugging her daughter she yelled, “You did it! You did it! You worked hard, and you did it! I am proud of you!”
The video captioned with the hashtag #FGCUaccepted was shared on the university’s social media platforms. With nearly 64,000 views and hundreds of likes and comments, the video remains one of FGCU’s most engaging social media posts to date.
“It felt really good. I didn’t expect the surprise to go that far,” Carolyn Cordova said.
Fast forward nearly two years, and she is pursuing a degree in special education while also getting hands-on experience working full time in a Charlotte County School District classroom. Cordova works with third- and fourth-graders with learning disabilities; it’s personal for her because she has been in their shoes.
“I had my own learning disabilities growing up,” Cordova explained. “When I was in high school, I felt like I wasn’t given my best chance, so I want to change that for other kids.”
Teaching is a passion for her. She connects with her students on a different level, giving them the confidence to learn and ask questions. She is determined to be the support system she never felt she had in the classroom.
“I love my job. I’m watching my students blossom and it makes me feel so amazing,” Cordova said. “Sometimes they just need that little extra love.”
Her parents are proud of their daughter and what she is accomplishing. They watch as she juggles a full-time job, while working late nights and weekends to complete her assignments.
“I am in awe of her indomitable spirit,” said Maria Cordova. “She knows how it feels to be a student in a special-education program, and I believe her experience will make a big impact on the lives of her future students.”
Carolyn Cordova earned her associates degree from Florida SouthWestern State College before attending FGCU. Set to graduate in spring 2022, she credits her parents with giving her the strength to push through. Although she admits her schedule is stressful, she is grateful to FGCU and her professors for giving her the foundation to reach her goals.
“It took me a while to accept who I am, and now I am happy. I am OK with having a learning disability,” Cordova explained. “It’s frustrating, it’s always going to be frustrating, but it makes me very determined. I feel like the sky is the limit.”