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Grad finds new career path after recession
Student Success Story, May 18, 2012
Alejandro Tobon knows what it feels like to lose everything.
In 2008, when he was 27 years old, Tobon lived with his wife in his own home and had a comfortable job in the real estate sector, all despite having no college degree.
Then came the real estate market collapse and the recession.
“I had some success in the real estate business,” Tobon said. “I was able to buy a house with my wife and we did some fun things. I felt successful. I felt I had things figured out. In retrospect, I can see how I took many things for granted … the 2008 real estate crisis wiped me out.”
Tobon’s employer went out of business and he found that despite his on-the-job skills and network of contacts, his lack of a college degree was an insurmountable hurdle in the newly competitive job market.
Tobon, 31, was ineligible for unemployment benefits because his job had been in sales, and mounting financial difficulties exacerbated problems in his marriage and led to divorce. When Tobon lost his home, he moved into his parents’ living room in Pawtucket and enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island last semester.
The Pawtucket resident had taken a few classes at CCRI 12 years earlier but stopped going because he began making money without a degree. He was able to use a few of those old credits and earn others through the College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, which allowed him to graduate in just one year.
Tobon is not seeking to return to real estate or even sales. Instead, he has been accepted into Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., to study exercise physiology, and wants to encourage people to live a healthy lifestyle.
“In the end, you can have everything you want but if you don’t have the health to enjoy it, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Tobon grew up playing sports and said he was always taught about the importance of exercise and nutrition. He stayed interested in the subject over the years and said he wants to encourage healthier habits in Americans, who are becoming increasingly unhealthy.
Tobon graduated May 18 with a degree in General Studies and a 3.8 GPA. He thanked his parents for supporting him while he attended CCRI full time so that he could graduate and get back on his feet as soon as possible. He said that their support comes partly from the fact that they, too, know how it feels to no longer have what you need.
The Tobons are originally from Medellin, Colombia, and moved briefly to Rhode Island in 1979 to stay with a relative and save up some money to open their own business in their home country. Tobon and his brother, Carlos, were born in the United States before the family moved back in 1982.
In 1984, Tobon’s father was stabbed and nearly killed during a street crime, suffering a punctured lung and landing in a hospital intensive care unit. The Tobons were worried that violent conditions in Colombia would not improve.
“That’s when my mother said, ‘This isn’t going to get better; we have to leave permanently,’” Tobon remembered.
“They felt they needed to sacrifice to give my brother and me a better life,” Tobon said. “If we were still in Colombia, what would we be? My mother could have been a young widow raising two children.”
When Tobon and his family returned to the United States, his parents had a difficult work schedule: His father worked third shift and his mother worked two jobs, including a night shift as a janitor in Pawtucket banks.
“I remember that she would pick us up at [the Pawtucket Boys and Girls Club] and we would go clean the banks with her at night,” Tobon said.
At the same time, Tobon was having trouble in school. He was quiet and reserved, didn’t seem to be paying attention to his teachers and sometimes got into minor fights with other students. It was not until the second grade that a teacher’s assistant suspected he had a hearing impairment.
“I eventually got hearing aids in both ears and I started coming out of my shell,” Tobon said. “I was taking [English as a second language] courses, but my English got better and I started making friends.”
Tobon was involved with sports activities at the Boys and Girls Club, where he went after school each day, and with community service activities for his church. He joined the Boy Scouts and was the first member of his troop in Central Falls to reach the top rank of Eagle Scout. In 1997, he was inducted into the Pawtucket Teen Hall of Fame for his volunteer work with Progreso Latino, Project Hope and the Rhode Island Youth Guidance Center.
After graduating from high school in 1999, Tobon took a few courses at CCRI but left to pursue a full-time job with the Narragansett Council of Boy Scouts of America. He worked as a paraprofessional and coordinated the activities of 150 Scouts each week in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket as well as Fall River and New Bedford, Mass.
Tobon got into the real estate business in 2004, buying a few houses at low prices, refurbishing them and selling them. In the process he learned about the mortgage industry, gave credit workshops and served as a Spanish language translator for Hispanic customers.
On the eve of his graduation, Tobon thanked his parents for giving him both a sense of personal responsibility and community engagement.
He also thanked the many faculty and staff who taught him at CCRI, where he often spends eight to 10 hours each day taking classes and serving in clubs such as Students for Environmental Action, the entrepreneurship organization Collegiate DECA and the International Club.
Tobon said that CCRI is an excellent starting point for any student from any walk of life.
“I’m very grateful and feel blessed for this second chance in life,” he said.