Victor Chininin Buele
Back when Borders was still in existence, you would often see a couple of books in the bargain section. They were marketed as The Smartest [Investment, Money, 401(k)] Book You’ll Ever Read. I thought they promised too much and delivered too little. Otherwise, we would be full of millionaires who stole the books at a bargain price.
I woke up this morning to read two very different things. One was on NPR. ICE announced that foreign students in the United States enrolled in a college or university that decides to meet online next fall will be required to go back to their place of origin or transfer to a school that doesn’t meet online. I’m currently doing graduate work, and our school is planning to start with on campus classes so long as it is safe to do so but always with the possibility of switching back to online mode as needed. What does that mean for one of my beloved classmates, barely making it financially but happily and purposefully investing in the future? Will he need to go back to India? How is he going to raise the funds to go back? Will he ever get to come back? How do I process this?
Then, I opened my LinkedIn account and read a message from somebody very special and greatly appreciated by me. She has retired after 32 years serving at Northwest Missouri State University. So, I decided to do one of the things the title of this site promises. All of Life. Under the Sovereign. Happily. Yes, happily. Lest I fall short of my site’s explicit and implicit promises like those investment books, let me switch your attention for a moment from the political reality and the emotional consequences of it. Let me turn your attention to a story.
We can spend our lives arguing about immigration or racism or inequality, or we can do something about it.
And that is what this very distinguished professor did for 32 years.
I was a stranger. I had been in the country for perhaps six months. I came and had to hit the ground running. I had to learn all the English I could as fast as humanly possible. I was informed that I was too late, that the ACT admission exams were just around the corner. I was told that scholarships were all dependent upon this very important score. And to top the stress, I learned my classmates had been taking and retaking this test to improve their scores since their sophomore year. Things were not looking very good.
My calculus, physics, and English teachers invested a lot in me to help me get ready for college in record time. My band teachers became my parents, let me move in to their basement and welcomed all my clumsiness. My grandpa’s old typewriter was put to use for my applications and essays. I ran out of ink on that thing so fast. I do not remember how many applications I must have filled out, and how many of those resulted in simple rejection letters. Just to give you an idea of how far and wide I cast my net, the Maryville Business and Professional Women actually gave me a scholarship. I went with my mom to the dinner where they awarded the scholarship. How does an Ecuadorian young man get such a scholarship? Well, God has a good sense of humor.
I am not going to lie. There is only so far that you can go with your youthful pride and motivation. I was about to call it quits. Things were not looking good. The money just wasn’t there to be able to afford college.
And then one evening the phone rang, and my dad said it was for me. I was not expecting to receive any phone calls. He told me it was this professor from Northwest. I got so nervous that I held the phone upside down, and I couldn’t hear anything and kept trying to say hello to no response. Until I figured out that the phone was upside down, that is.
I was offered a scholarship from the computer science department that evening. Not a huge one, mind you. It was far from a made-for-TV movie plot. But it was the tipping point. And it changed things for me. The music department came shortly behind with some more money. I would become a Bearcat.
I loved it. It was the American dream coming true. I made friends. I loved the school, my professors, my classmates, my band, my piano (I got to play a Steinway!!! Way fancier than the old Petrof or the Yamaha from Room 17 in the SBC Conservatory from Loja, which is still very dear to me, of course). But the aftermath of Y2K and the globalization of IT were just starting to emerge. I had no time to notice such world changing events. I was too busy working like crazy, making it to band practice, practicing for my piano lessons, writing computer programs, and trying to get some sleep somewhere in there.
Outsourcing after Y2K resulted in the closing of many computer shops in the four state region. And with that came the tightening of anything that could be helpful to an international student. Scholarship money dried up. Internships disappeared. Jobs disappeared. It was no longer that I wouldn’t be able to get a job. Many, many computer engineers, programmers, and others lost their jobs. Things were just not looking good.
All along the way, the professor had been incredibly kind and helpful to me. I was welcomed in the department with open arms. I had every opportunity to grow and develop and contribute. But very soon, the clock was starting to run out. Graduation loomed in the horizon. I had no prospects for employment, and everything seemed like a lost cause. I had placed my bet, and it was time.
That day, I lost it. And who got stuck listening to my twenty-year-old self whine and complain and be angry at all of this? This wonderful professor. If I were to ever say that I was heard, it would be in this conversation. I received sound advice, I received encouragement, and I received a solid dose of reality. I was presented with a choice. I wasn’t manipulated or forced or made to feel guilty. I was given the data, and I had to choose. Would I move forward and finish the race? Or would I drop out and admit defeat in advance?
Did I mention that I ran out of money, and that things were not looking good? I was awarded a prestigious scholarship from one of the most important companies in Kansas City. I knew from the start that they would not be able to hire me due to immigration restrictions after Y2K and the massive layoffs in the metro area. I did not want to apply. I thought it was a lost cause. But I was advised to apply regardless. And I did. And I received that great distinction. I was taught a very valuable lesson by this professor, far beyond the database skills I use daily (Did I mention that I taught a seminar just today at work on how our payment engine uses SQL and the database?) and far beyond all the wonderful professional development advice I was given over the years. The lesson was that, I don’t think she ever put it like this, but this is what I got from it: You’re going to be told No a lot. It matters a great deal what you do with the No afterwards. And it is most important to not tell yourself No and not even try.
I do not know how many people she must have called for me, how many recommendation letters she must have written for me. I do not know all that she did behind the scenes. But I know I was greatly blessed by all of this.
You see, I wasn’t different to her. I wasn’t a minority to her. I wasn’t a Latino boy that went to her class. I was her student. Just like every other one. And I felt it and knew it. It made a huge difference.
One day, I recall being late for something, riding my bicycle, and hearing from her that I needed to go home and get ready for a mock interview. So I did. I turned around, rode as fast as I could back to the apartment, put on my suit, and rode right back to Colden Hall.
There I had an appointment that would change my life. The man she introduced me to was doing his job, pretending to interview me, like he was supposed to do. But something changed during the interview. Something I had done. Something I was studying. Something I knew. And I knew something changed in that moment, and sixteen years later, I am a principal technical consultant at the company where this man is a vice president of software development now. I have traveled the world and had the privilege of working with men and women of so many backgrounds and countries and languages. I have had the privilege of working with some of the world’s greatest banks and retailers.
She never stopped encouraging me to press forward. She never stopped encouraging me to study and overcome the odds. Even when I failed that database systems final because I had to record some music tracks for a friend (and some much needed cash) the night before.
She helped me help others as well, long after my days in the classroom.
I am thankful for her. I am honored to have had the privilege of studying under her. But most importantly, I have always enjoyed and delighted in seeing what it is like to do something about the evils of our day. And that is an encouragement to me to make the world a better place, every day, from my corner of the world.
May we not waste our lives merely talking instead of rolling up our sleeves and defeating the challenges of our day.