I asked one of my students at the ‘Culinary‘ (Culinary Institute of America) to tell me how he fulfilled his dream to become a student at the CIA. His journey was long yet extraordinarily inspiring. This is his story in his own words.
“My name is Rene S. Leon and I grew up in a small town in Ecuador.
My brothers encouraged me to go away to study in the city of Cuenca which is about a one hour’s journey away from my parents’ home town. I remember the day when they brought me to Cuenca for the first time. I felt so strange and dizzy with anxiety. Imagine me: a country boy arriving in what I then thought was a big city. I grew up where the only traffic on the roads were cows and sheep and dogs running in packs. In Cuenca, there was so much noise and the exhaust from the cars covered the city in a cloud of soot.
Almost immediately I began to miss my home town of San Fernando. I was terrified because I had to face my first day of class with so many new faces and new teachers. I felt people were looking at me, and this made me feel even more intimidated. Everything felt new, even the air smelled and tasted different from my hometown. The change from the countryside to the city was so enormous that it felt as though I was living a different language. For example, in my home town at the high school, I only learned a few vocabulary words in English. I had no idea how to string together a complete sentence.
In my first year in Cuenca, I failed the English class and, in the second year I failed again. I was miserable. I felt as though the whole world was resting on my shoulders. I told my parents that I wanted to drop out of the school. My mother was angry with me and angry with the school but I could see the love for me in her eyes. My parents were frustrated because they weren’t able to help me. They didn’t want me to end up like them.
They always hoped that my brothers and I could get further along because their parents had never supported their dream of going to school. My mother dropped out in the fourth grade and my father made it only as far as the sixth grade. This is why they insisted I return to Cuenca and finish my education. I did manage to graduate, but even up to the last day I always hated English classes.
As soon as I left school, I made up my mind that I wanted to emigrate to America even though I didn’t have any money in my pocket. The job market in Cuenca was not great at the time. I managed to find work in a fast food restaurant. It was like a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) but I earned only $28 a month and I needed $5,000 to to get to the U.S.
It was impossible to continue dreaming. But then I heard from my neighbor that they were hiring at his factory. I asked him if he would mind writing a reference letter so that I could apply there. He said, “No problem. I could even take you there!” I was so happy when I heard the salary was $95 a month. I felt a little closer to achieving my goal, but at the same time I was scared because I knew I had to improve my English in order to come to America.
A few months later I decided to borrow the money and come to the United States. When I arrived in 1995, I had to face the same terrible problem that I had in high school: English! And this time it was even worse because I had to learn the language in order to get a job. I was very lucky, though, because when I arrived here, my brother Danilo gave me his job.
It was the noblest thing that anyone had ever done for me. That job consisted of washing dishes. But even for this work, I needed English. Fortunately, things have improved since I arrived. I learned fast, and after eight years of hard work, I realized that I could move up the ladder.
I left behind a culture that traces its roots to the Incas (approximately 500 AD) where some ways of life still haven’t changed. Next month, I will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from The Culinary Institute of America, the world’s premier culinary college.”
I don’t know what Rene will do with his culinary degree. But I do know that he boldly dared to take a risk to go after his passion in food and overcame obstacles that others would shrink from. For if you don’t ask for what you want, the chances of getting it are close to zero.