It’s been almost 10 years since Carlos Gonzalez, a student at Pellissippi State, had to put his college dreams on hold.
Now the formerly undocumented immigrant is representing community college students statewide as Student Regent for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Gonzalez, 29, was appointed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to serve a one-year term that ends in June 2019. During that time, Gonzalez will be crisscrossing the state in an effort to represent the students of the 40 community and technical colleges governed by TBR, the largest system of higher education in Tennessee.
“I will be talking to student leaders throughout the state, both trying to convey messages from TBR to students and also hearing from students and letting TBR know what they think,” says Gonzalez, who previously served as a New Student Orientation Leader and as a mathematics and Spanish tutor at Pellissippi State.
Gonzalez was nominated for the position by Gayle Wood, director of Access and Diversity at Pellissippi State. Gonzalez works for Access and Diversity, where he helps his fellow adult learners transition into college.
“Perhaps what impresses me most about Carlos is the support he provides for others out of the goodness of his heart,” Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr. wrote in a letter of recommendation to the governor. “He is often one of the first students on campus in the morning – and has taken the responsibility of brewing the first pot of coffee for our adult learners.”
Gonzalez started Pellissippi State in fall 2016, almost 10 years after an unforeseen setback thwarted his plans to attend college after his high school graduation.
“I always liked school, but when I was applying for college, I found out I was undocumented, and my dream of being a math teacher went poof,” explains Gonzalez, a native of Guerrero, Mexico, who has lived in Knoxville since he was 4 years old.
Unable to attend college as an undocumented immigrant, Gonzalez joined the family business, handling the accounting and managing the finances. He married in 2012 and applied for his Permanent Resident Card, also known as a Green Card.
The Green Card Gonzalez received in March 2016 opened the door for him to start his college education but, like other adults considering enrolling in college for the first time, he was nervous.
“When I came here to Pellissippi State, I was scared because life had been putting me down,” Gonzalez says. “But being here was a breath of fresh air. It brought life back to me. It revived my dream of being a teacher.”
Wood remembers her first meeting with Gonzalez, who she described as “anxious, fearful, unsure and insecure – characteristics of many adult learners as they begin the process of enrolling in college.” Gonzalez participated in Pellissippi Achieves for Adult Learners, a mentoring program for adult learners who are first-generation college students and first-time freshmen, and has never looked back.
“Carlos’ accomplishments are enormous: he has soared academically; he is a sought-out tutor for math and Spanish; he volunteers at the Admissions office as a translator; he has been guest speaker for a UT instructor’s class; and he introduced the guest speaker at the 2017 Convocation,” Wood says. “Although Carlos is a student, he is also a student advocate. His personality, character, contagious spirit and willingness to help fellow students, faculty and staff make him the ideal TBR Student Regent.”
Gonzalez is double majoring in accounting and mathematics at Pellissippi State. He plans to graduate in spring 2019 and continue his education at the University of Tennessee. Gonzalez’s goal is to return to Pellissippi State as a math professor.
“That’s another reason I applied for this position as Student Regent for TBR,” he notes. “I want to know what goes on behind the scenes, to understand the policy decisions that affect community college students.”
Although serving as Student Regent involves traveling throughout the state, Gonzalez still is taking 12 hours of classes this semester and cannot say enough about his experience at Pellissippi State.
“The professors here are accessible to you and really try to make that connection with students,” Gonzalez says. “That’s why I want to come back and teach here.”