"You should never let schooling get in the way of your education"

Meet Sebastian, sophomore at the University of Georgia and one of my good friends. In addition to pursuing a combined bachelor's and master's program in economics, working at a nonprofit, campaigning, and working with economists from around the globe, he somehow still finds time to be a phenomenal cook.   
  
   
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     Tell us a little bit about yourself.   Okay, I’m going to start at the beginning—because this is a fun story. My mom is from a little, tiny pueblo in Colombia and my dad is from Medellín, which is a town in Colombia, and is also coincidentally where Pablo Escobar is from. In fact, I was born in Medellín in a hospital built by Pablo Escobar. According to what my mom has told me, when she went into labor, Escobar’s brother was two doors down from the room because he’d been blinded in a bomb attack. That’s when my family began thinking about emigrating. Later, our family was traveling by car from Medellín to Bogota when we were ambushed by FARC rebels. They were going to hold my parents for ransom, but they saw me crying in the back seat and let them go. That’s when they decided to move us to the U.S. Currently, they live in Georgia where my mom works as a housekeeper and my step-father drives Uber and does other delivery jobs. Neither one had much formal education.     
  
   
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     What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered on your journey to college?   I was actually a terrible student in high school. I made a lot of bad decisions, a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t planning on going to college, in fact, I was ambivalent about even finishing high school—I had lost all motivation. It wasn’t until junior year when I started to fix a lot of those mistakes, straighten out, and double down on my education. Since then I’ve actually done pretty well.   
  
   
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     What made you change?   There was one particular evening, I was sitting on the couch being an idiot, and my mom came home—for some reason I’d never really noticed, never really looked at her, until that day. I saw her aching knees, her back, her hands worn down by the Clorox, and saw the pain she felt at having to spend every day cleaning people’s bathrooms—a job she's done for thirty years. And I realized at that moment  why  she was doing it, she was doing it for me, so that I could have a better life and a better education. I looked at myself and I looked at her and realized that I was sacrificing my education while she was sacrificing being away from her home, from the food she grew up with, her culture, and her health for me—and I was throwing it away. I decided to turn myself around. I keep my mom in the back of my mind and that’s what drives me most of the time.

Meet Sebastian, sophomore at the University of Georgia and one of my good friends. In addition to pursuing a combined bachelor's and master's program in economics, working at a nonprofit, campaigning, and working with economists from around the globe, he somehow still finds time to be a phenomenal cook.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Okay, I’m going to start at the beginning—because this is a fun story. My mom is from a little, tiny pueblo in Colombia and my dad is from Medellín, which is a town in Colombia, and is also coincidentally where Pablo Escobar is from. In fact, I was born in Medellín in a hospital built by Pablo Escobar. According to what my mom has told me, when she went into labor, Escobar’s brother was two doors down from the room because he’d been blinded in a bomb attack. That’s when my family began thinking about emigrating. Later, our family was traveling by car from Medellín to Bogota when we were ambushed by FARC rebels. They were going to hold my parents for ransom, but they saw me crying in the back seat and let them go. That’s when they decided to move us to the U.S. Currently, they live in Georgia where my mom works as a housekeeper and my step-father drives Uber and does other delivery jobs. Neither one had much formal education.

What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered on your journey to college?

I was actually a terrible student in high school. I made a lot of bad decisions, a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t planning on going to college, in fact, I was ambivalent about even finishing high school—I had lost all motivation. It wasn’t until junior year when I started to fix a lot of those mistakes, straighten out, and double down on my education. Since then I’ve actually done pretty well. 

What made you change?

There was one particular evening, I was sitting on the couch being an idiot, and my mom came home—for some reason I’d never really noticed, never really looked at her, until that day. I saw her aching knees, her back, her hands worn down by the Clorox, and saw the pain she felt at having to spend every day cleaning people’s bathrooms—a job she's done for thirty years. And I realized at that moment why she was doing it, she was doing it for me, so that I could have a better life and a better education. I looked at myself and I looked at her and realized that I was sacrificing my education while she was sacrificing being away from her home, from the food she grew up with, her culture, and her health for me—and I was throwing it away. I decided to turn myself around. I keep my mom in the back of my mind and that’s what drives me most of the time.

Sebastian (second from the right) with the team at   HoPe  , the nonprofit he works at.     
  
   
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     Making significant changes is hard. How did you keep yourself going?   It wasn’t easy—I had to learn how to do everything from scratch. I had to figure out how to be a good person, have good character, how to be a good student. It took a lot of self-reflection and time alone, a lot of looking in the mirror and being honest with myself. I also did a lot of reading during this time.   
  
   
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     What is the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your journey?   “Wisdom can’t be sought, it can only be found”—if you choose to see it that is. If you try to learn from every experience, you can gain so much; that’s kind of how I rationalize my struggle and everything I’ve been through. The greatest strength we have is to turn our weaknesses into strengths—I didn’t really learn that from a book, I learned that from life. That’s something I think every student needs to learn, not just first-generation students, life is filled with struggles but those struggles can be turned into strengths if you have the will to do so.

Sebastian (second from the right) with the team at HoPe, the nonprofit he works at.  

Making significant changes is hard. How did you keep yourself going?

It wasn’t easy—I had to learn how to do everything from scratch. I had to figure out how to be a good person, have good character, how to be a good student. It took a lot of self-reflection and time alone, a lot of looking in the mirror and being honest with myself. I also did a lot of reading during this time. 

What is the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your journey?

“Wisdom can’t be sought, it can only be found”—if you choose to see it that is. If you try to learn from every experience, you can gain so much; that’s kind of how I rationalize my struggle and everything I’ve been through. The greatest strength we have is to turn our weaknesses into strengths—I didn’t really learn that from a book, I learned that from life. That’s something I think every student needs to learn, not just first-generation students, life is filled with struggles but those struggles can be turned into strengths if you have the will to do so.

Sebastian on a trip to the GA state capitol to talk to the governor's policy team about social mobility and transportation in Atlanta, GA.     
  
   
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     What advice would you give to a high school student who is having a hard time, like you were, and who doesn’t know how to reach out and ask for help?    A hard lesson I had to learn, was a lesson in humility. It’s hard to learn that lesson, and it takes a lot of failures, and I guess that’s probably what they have to go through and pick out the lessons that they can from the experience. Now, I don’t want any student in high school to fail, but they need to self-reflect, look back and not just scratch the surface, really think about what they’ve gone through and who they really are—not just who other people think they are.   So, let me ask you, what do you do when you do fail? Because even if you decide to turn your life around, you’ll still have failures and disappointments; how do you stay motivated?      I work at a non-profit that tries to help a lot of first-generation Latinx students and what I tell my students is to always look at your parents and the sacrifices they’re making, and realize you have to keep going because they keep going. Your parents have been working day in and day out as hard as possible for  you . So for you to give up would be to throw away what they’ve been working for.   What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?      I’m paraphrasing, but: “He who conquers his own soul is greater than he who conquers a city”. You can be successful by achieving external things, but you create character by mastering the internal stuff. Every trial, every hard time is an opportunity to grow.   What plans do you have for the future?   I mentioned the nonprofit I work for, the   Hispanic Organization Promoting Education (HoPE)  , and ideally I’d like to continue working along those veins. I’m currently studying at the University of Georgia and doing a combined bachelor's and master’s program in economics and I’m planning on pursuing a doctorate right after my undergraduate. I want to study social mobility and my hope is to work with this group of economists in California that has been conducting research on income disparity and evaluating the loss to society that occurs when children from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to opportunity. Hopefully, someday I will have my own nonprofit as well.   What got you interested in economics?   I would say HoPE, actually. My work there made me want to help people and I chose the major that would allow me to make the greatest impact given my skillset.

Sebastian on a trip to the GA state capitol to talk to the governor's policy team about social mobility and transportation in Atlanta, GA.  

What advice would you give to a high school student who is having a hard time, like you were, and who doesn’t know how to reach out and ask for help? 

A hard lesson I had to learn, was a lesson in humility. It’s hard to learn that lesson, and it takes a lot of failures, and I guess that’s probably what they have to go through and pick out the lessons that they can from the experience. Now, I don’t want any student in high school to fail, but they need to self-reflect, look back and not just scratch the surface, really think about what they’ve gone through and who they really are—not just who other people think they are.

So, let me ask you, what do you do when you do fail? Because even if you decide to turn your life around, you’ll still have failures and disappointments; how do you stay motivated?

 I work at a non-profit that tries to help a lot of first-generation Latinx students and what I tell my students is to always look at your parents and the sacrifices they’re making, and realize you have to keep going because they keep going. Your parents have been working day in and day out as hard as possible for you. So for you to give up would be to throw away what they’ve been working for.

What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

 I’m paraphrasing, but: “He who conquers his own soul is greater than he who conquers a city”. You can be successful by achieving external things, but you create character by mastering the internal stuff. Every trial, every hard time is an opportunity to grow.

What plans do you have for the future?

I mentioned the nonprofit I work for, the Hispanic Organization Promoting Education (HoPE), and ideally I’d like to continue working along those veins. I’m currently studying at the University of Georgia and doing a combined bachelor's and master’s program in economics and I’m planning on pursuing a doctorate right after my undergraduate. I want to study social mobility and my hope is to work with this group of economists in California that has been conducting research on income disparity and evaluating the loss to society that occurs when children from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to opportunity. Hopefully, someday I will have my own nonprofit as well.

What got you interested in economics?

I would say HoPE, actually. My work there made me want to help people and I chose the major that would allow me to make the greatest impact given my skillset.

Sebastian with his friend group at the London School of Economics, where he took an environmental economics class.     
  
   
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   I know you spent some time at the London School of Economics last summer, what led you to pursue that?   I’d never traveled on my own, never been to Europe and it was a little scary and uncomfortable. But I knew the only way to grow and gain experience was to do it, so I said, what the hell, let’s go. When you take these chances, you lose a lot of fear not just about traveling, but trying new things in general. I’m actually going to spend this summer in Argentina working with an economist there, and although my mom isn’t that thrilled about it, sometimes you have to take that leap.   For a lot of first-gen students, going to college makes them more different from their family members. For students who come from immigrant families/are immigrants themselves, this dynamic is often magnified. How do you handle this and remain authentic to yourself?    Number one, you have to know that you’re not alone. Even the kid whose whole family has gone to Ivy Leagues, even she’s probably a little scared.  Second, start small. You don’t have to immediately jump in and join a thousand clubs, overextend yourself, and then die. You can do something simple like cooking in the dorm’s kitchen and sharing the food with someone who walks in. Starting really small helps you get comfortable and make the college more of a home.  In terms of your family, I think the trick is to always remain humble, just because I’m going to college doesn’t mean that I know anything or that I’m entitled to anything. A lot of times my parents or friends who didn’t go to college are wiser than I am. I don’t doubt that. I may know something about   p values   now, but I don’t know everything about love, friendship, or life.    
  
   
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     Rapid Fire Round:    Give me one book recommendation:  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho—it teaches that lesson I mentioned that wisdom can only be found, not sought.   Something cool you’ve recently stumbled upon:  Cubanitos coffee. It's an espresso with a froth of sugar. It’s the elixir of the gods.   Fun fact (about yourself or anything else):  I play guitar, I love improvisation, and I really like blues because improvising is so important in that genre.   Study tip:  Take your phone, silence it, put it on do not disturb, and then throw it in the river. You have to get into what psychologists call "flow"; it's so important. (We'll talk more about the concept of flow in an upcoming post!)  Many thanks to Sebastian for sitting down and talking with us! 

Sebastian with his friend group at the London School of Economics, where he took an environmental economics class.

I know you spent some time at the London School of Economics last summer, what led you to pursue that?

I’d never traveled on my own, never been to Europe and it was a little scary and uncomfortable. But I knew the only way to grow and gain experience was to do it, so I said, what the hell, let’s go. When you take these chances, you lose a lot of fear not just about traveling, but trying new things in general. I’m actually going to spend this summer in Argentina working with an economist there, and although my mom isn’t that thrilled about it, sometimes you have to take that leap.

For a lot of first-gen students, going to college makes them more different from their family members. For students who come from immigrant families/are immigrants themselves, this dynamic is often magnified. How do you handle this and remain authentic to yourself?

Number one, you have to know that you’re not alone. Even the kid whose whole family has gone to Ivy Leagues, even she’s probably a little scared.  Second, start small. You don’t have to immediately jump in and join a thousand clubs, overextend yourself, and then die. You can do something simple like cooking in the dorm’s kitchen and sharing the food with someone who walks in. Starting really small helps you get comfortable and make the college more of a home.

In terms of your family, I think the trick is to always remain humble, just because I’m going to college doesn’t mean that I know anything or that I’m entitled to anything. A lot of times my parents or friends who didn’t go to college are wiser than I am. I don’t doubt that. I may know something about p values now, but I don’t know everything about love, friendship, or life. 

Rapid Fire Round:

Give me one book recommendation: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho—it teaches that lesson I mentioned that wisdom can only be found, not sought.

Something cool you’ve recently stumbled upon: Cubanitos coffee. It's an espresso with a froth of sugar. It’s the elixir of the gods.

Fun fact (about yourself or anything else): I play guitar, I love improvisation, and I really like blues because improvising is so important in that genre.

Study tip: Take your phone, silence it, put it on do not disturb, and then throw it in the river. You have to get into what psychologists call "flow"; it's so important. (We'll talk more about the concept of flow in an upcoming post!)

Many thanks to Sebastian for sitting down and talking with us!