By the time they make it to college, most students don’t look to their parents to help them study. But Raquel Toro had a good reason: Her stepfather was in several of her classes.
Toro will join her stepfather Richard Arroyo again on Saturday, when each will don a cap and gown and graduate from the University of Central Florida with bachelor’s degrees in psychology. They were among about 7,900 students graduating from UCF last week.
“It was awesome to have a study buddy at home and someone who could understand some of my college complaints,” Toro said. “Now, since we’ve been in school together for some time, it feels normal to be graduating together.”
Arroyo calls his class time with Toro a gift.
“For the classes we did sit in together, it was amazing how she would save me a seat next to her if she was there first, and I would do the same for her,” Arroyo said. “We definitely got closer in our relationship, so I view the experience as a true gift in my life.”
The two took different paths to their degrees, but each one showed perseverance.
Arroyo, 61, earned a high school diploma in Puerto Rico in 1971 at the age of 16, and joined the military at age 17. Later, he would work his way up the career ranks in the telecommunications field.
But he’d never finished college. Decades later, Arroyo set out to change that, enrolling at Seminole State College in 2013. It turned out to be a complicated start: Records showing he’d graduated from high school so many years before couldn’t be found, and neither could files showing he’d earned college credit while attending a now-defunct college in Puerto Rico.
With no other options, Arroyo took and passed the exam to obtain his GED. At Seminole State, Arroyo excelled, making the dean’s list and joining the scholastic honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
“I didn’t know I was capable of studying and taking classes anymore,” Arroyo said. “But I was really motivated after I found I could. I was getting good grades. It was challenging for me but I enjoyed learning.”
At the same time, he’d been volunteering to speak to addiction recovery groups and in jails about the path to recovery. It was something he knew well; as a younger man, he’d dealt with his own alcohol and drug addiction before getting clean.
“I can empathize,” he said. “I can give them hope.”
He’d seen how psychology and recovery therapies were related, and after earning an associate’s degree, decided to pursue a psychology degree at UCF. After a year at UCF, he passed the Florida State Board exam to become a certified addiction counselor and began working part-time at a recovery facility in Oviedo, where he counsels DUI and substance abuse clients and conducts group therapy.
Arroyo had help paying for college: veteran benefits, a UCF Scholars Award, a Psychology Merit Award, and the Jack & Monica Thorsen Veteran Scholarship.
For Raquel Toro, there was never any question that she’d attend college. No one in her family had ever earned a college degree, but they were determined to change that.
“My mom had always said, ‘No matter what, you are going to college.’ My siblings, my grandparents – it was definitely a village effort to make sure I went to college,” she said. “I grew up knowing I was going to succeed because of everybody’s sacrifices.”
Toro’s mother was worried her daughter would be lost at a university as big as UCF, so she enrolled at the University of North Florida. But it didn’t feel right, she said, and after a year she returned home and enrolled at Seminole State College to finish the credits needed for an associate’s degree.
When she transferred to UCF, she found her home. Toro said her effort to get involved on campus has enhanced her experience personally and professionally.
“I’ve learned so much here and I believe I’m so much stronger as a woman,” she said. “I’ve grown as a student and a person.”
For the past year and a half, Toro has worked at Career Services, where she’s been promoted to senior peer advisor. She’s been transition leader for transfer students, as well as an orientation leader. And through the Multicultural Academic and Support Services office, she’s attended student success conferences.
Toro is an example of how students who are the first in their families to earn a college degree change not only their own lives, but those of their children and future generations.
Though Toro won’t graduate until May, she’s already seen how that ripple effect can lift her family. Using skills learned while working in Career Services, Toro assisted her mother in updating her resume and coached her on interviews skills – helping her earn a promotion.
And Toro is making sure that continues. She frequently brings her niece and nephew to campus to expose them to college.
“I strongly believe the education I’ve gotten here and the things that I’ve learned have indirectly influenced my family,” she said. “My mom planted the seed really young that I was going to college – there was no other option. I want to do the same for my niece and nephew.”
Toro majored in psychology, with a minor in sociology. She benefited from Pell grants, Bright Futures and Take Stock in Children, a program that provided mentorship and a scholarship through the Foundation for Seminole County Public Schools.
She plans to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and work in a student-support position at a school or university.
“Graduating with my bachelor’s degree feels extremely special and rewarding not only because I am a first-generation student, but also because I know how much it means to my family,” Toro said. “I’m so grateful for the sacrifices they made for my education and proud that I get to walk at commencement with my stepfather.”