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Finding Success at a Community College: Paolo's Story Part I

I am about to turn 22. I have been accepted into several four-year institutions with partial scholarships to pursue a degree in several engineering areas, I have achieved a 4.0 GPA, and I have lived experiences I would have never had in my home country, Peru. My name is Paolo Castelo, and I am an international student currently attending North Hennepin Community College. This is my adventure.

On my way to achieving my dreams
On my way to achieving my dreams

Twelve years ago, I formulated my dream: to become an aerospace engineer and design all sorts of planes, from commercial aircraft to fierce fighters. Unfortunately, this career was not offered in my country, so I set myself the goal of coming to the United States to study. After graduating from high school, I worked closely with my EducationUSA advisor on getting my dream started.

It took me a year to prepare myself, take my SAT and TOEFL tests, and begin applying to colleges. The goal was to apply to several universities and hopefully get in with a full scholarship. I indeed managed to get into a few institutions, and some even gave me some financial aid, but I was still unable to meet the remaining balance.

Changing my approach

Bummed out by the result, my advisor suggested I consider community colleges instead. He explained to me that they can be incredibly cheaper ($170 per credit at my current community college compared to the $500-$1000 per credit at four-year universities), and that any courses I took could transfer to a bigger university.

He didn't have to say any more. I changed my approach and looked for some community colleges in Minnesota, since I had friends able to help me temporarily with housing there. The only problem was that I was not able to find a community college in the area that offered aerospace engineering), but my advisor said I could just study engineering and then specialize further once I transferred to a university.

I applied and got accepted, which made me and my family extremely delighted. Furthermore, I was able to come across some money, given to me by my aunt. She had just sold her house, and agreed to “invest” in my future. The amount she gave me was enough to cover two years of community college education. That solved the biggest of my drawbacks, so as long as I could get my visa, I was all set to go.


I had been to the United States embassy once before, which was with my dad back in 2007. That time, I applied and got a B-2 tourist visa to participate in an exchange program through my high school. This time, I was alone. I managed to keep calm and provide them with all the right answers, and I was granted my F-1 visa. Two weeks later, I was boarding the plane to take me to Minnesota.

Alison Leintz, international admissions specialist, without whom I would not be here
Alison Leintz, international admissions specialist, without whom I would not be here

At that point, I was not sure when I would be coming back, when I would see my friends and family again. Reality kicked in; I was a student pushing myself beyond all limits coming from a middle class family in a “third world” country. Spending $1,500 yearly to visit my family would prove an immense economic hardship on my family. I sucked it up, held any tears back to give strength to my family, and embraced my future.

During the first two weeks I took care of settling here and getting ready to start classes. I bought a “cheap but decent” laptop, paid for international student medical insurance (required by the college), and studied for my placement tests, which were a success - I got placed straight into college-level classes and didn’t have to take any of the dreaded non-credit “refresher” courses. I signed up for 16 credits in 4 classes: Pre-Calculus, Listening/Speaking for speakers of other languages, Macroeconomics, and College Writing I.

The first year high notes

I was amazed by the entire new experience. I found that everyone in the college - instructors, advisors, staff, and even fellow students - was happy and willing to help me succeed. In particular, I met Julie, a fellow student who has been one of my best influences at North Hennepin.

As that first semester progressed, it became obvious my host family’s lifestyle was very different from mine. I’m somewhat solitary, not very naturally sporty, and a night owl. They were the opposite. Eventually the annoyance from these clashing behaviors built up to a point where I had no other choice but to move away. I do not resent them at all; after all, had they not offered to host me in the first place, I would not have taken the risk to come to the U.S. all by myself. I am thankful for the chance they gave me, but it was time to move on. That’s when Julie came to my rescue, and I am still living with her and her mom after a year and a half.

Julie also convinced me to join Phi Theta Kappa, which has turned out to be the best part of going to a community college. Phi Theta Kappa is the largest international honor society for two-year colleges. To become a member you must first be invited - at North Hennepin the minimum requirements are 12 college-level credits with 3.5 GPA. Against all odds, and my initial thoughts, I achieved a 4.0 GPA during my first semester.

At PTK's international convention in Seattle
At PTK's international convention in Seattle

Being part of Phi Theta Kappa has been a journey of being influenced by leaders to influence and lead others. My personal experience includes: traveling to the society’s annual international convention in Seattle, being the president of my college chapter for a semester, leading and organizing a flash mob performed by our Phi Theta Kappa region at the International Convention (despite not being able to dance myself), meeting people who have challenged me scholarly, and also having my heart stolen by a girl who I am proud to say will be officially joining Phi Theta Kappa this upcoming fall.

By the end of my first year, Minnesota had become my new home. I fell in love with it. Yes, there were burdens, like not having a car and having to depend on the poor bus system, which limited my availability for projects and social events. But the people here were amazingly friendly, warm, welcoming, and willing to help me through a hard and lonely college life in a foreign country. Plus, my first snowy winter was fun, and I had my first full-blown snowball fight. Besides, I prefer colder places to warm ones.

My first year at North Hennepin ended on a high note. I had taken a difficult course load in the second semester – Calculus I, College Writing II, Ethics, and Chemistry I – but my 4.0 GPA stayed intact.

The second year was a different story though…

Find out why the prospect of transferring from NHCC to a 4-year university almost brought Paolo’s second year to a grinding halt, and how he finally found a solution, in part 2 tomorrow! [Update: Here's Part 2]