Failure Was Not an Option

Getting a College Degree Was Not a Foregone Conclusion for Alexandra Valdez '15
Alexandra Valdez '15 at Boston City Hall

It feels amazing to see more and more students at Fitchburg State who want to get engaged. It’s so close and dear to me to see young Latinos and people of color, because I totally know what they’re going through.

A first-generation college student whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was 10 years old, Alexandra Valdez ’15 often struggled in school.

“I went through a rough patch, and my family didn’t even know if I was going to graduate from high school,” Valdez said. “There were so many distractions in my life.”

She began her studies at community college in Boston, where the struggles continued. Finally, she realized she had to refocus. “I told myself, ‘You’ve got to get yourself together, Alex.’”

That included embracing opportunities at school, and accompanying a friend who was looking to study away from the city at a place called Fitchburg State. “She literally drove me to Fitchburg,” Valdez said.

Valdez liked what she saw and transferred the next semester. She started getting more involved, and was elected to Student Government Association. She said the supportive atmosphere of the campus and the number of engagement opportunities was critical to her success.

“To be able to have such a close-knit community helped me so much,” said Valdez, who was also class president. “As a first-generation Latina going to college, I needed to have that feeling of security.”

She said she never saw herself as “the smart student” when she was in high school, and getting over that self-image was an important realization. “I knew that failure wasn’t an option,” she said. “For once in my life, I wanted to do something for myself. It helped me understand who I am as a person. This wasn’t just a path for myself, but to love and respect and to serve others.”

In her senior year, Valdez was named of one of Massachusetts’ public higher education’s “29 Who Shine,” and recognized at the Statehouse for her leadership efforts at Fitchburg State.

Fitchburg State also helped Valdez land an internship with The Washington Center in the nation’s capital, where she interned with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. University scholarships helped defray the costs, opening doors to a life-changing experience. “If the school hadn’t helped me, I couldn’t have done it,” Valdez said. “It was one of the best experiences I ever had.”

That experience built on a passion for service that had begun in her community college days, when she worked a part-time job in a Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley’s office.

Valdez became the councilor’s Latino liaison, and she later worked in external affairs for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, where she helped break down barriers with communities of color.

She is continuing that work with her current job, as director of engagement in the city of Boston’s Economic Mobility Lab. The lab’s mission is to research and test ideas with the potential to economically help low- and moderate-income city residents, such as supporting high-quality childcare, incentivizing residents to open emergency savings accounts, and exploring how to help millennials buy their first houses.

Valdez, now pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Suffolk University, has remained engaged with Fitchburg State, coming back to campus to take part in panel discussions with current Latinx students.

“It feels amazing to see more and more students at Fitchburg State who want to get engaged,” she said. “Coming back is a very humbling experience, because it’s so close and dear to me to see young Latinos and people of color, because I totally know what they’re going through. It’s great to see.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 edition of Contact magazine.