If Sue Agraviador (18) could sum up what she’s learned most during her time working with first generation and underrepresented college students, it would be that there is always room for hope.
“I think there are times when you look at the news and the forest fires and the ocean rising and [think], ‘We are all doomed,’ Agraviador said. “[But] because I work with young people and I’ve seen what they can do, I haven’t lost hope.”
Sue Agraviador is the director of individual philanthropy at College Track, a college access and college success organization based out of Washington, D.C. Agraviador stepped into the nonprofit sector with the vision of how she could use her education to make a lasting impact by advocating for education for all.
As a first generation student herself, Agraviador said an integral part of her journey was finding people like herself who she could see succeeding in college.
“I think it was wonderful to have an environment where it felt like I learned as much from my peers and their experiences that we were sharing in class as much as I learned from our faculty,” Agraviador said. “There were many opportunities for us to share our experiences.”
“I think it was wonderful to have an environment where it felt like I learned as much from my peers and their experiences that we were sharing in class as much as I learned from our faculty.”
Like others she met at PLNU’s degree completion program, her college journey didn’t follow a traditional pathway. Agraviador grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She was the first of her family to graduate from high school and the first person to step into an office job while attending college.
“When I made the first decision to go college, that was because I came from a family where I was the first person in my family to have an office job — I had not been exposed to careers,” Agraviador said. “I didn’t grow up with people who were lawyers or engineers, business people or managers. I didn’t know the different careers within management that were possible.”
Agraviador studied English language and literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. However, unexpected life circumstances led her to take a leave from school.
“In my very last year of school, my dad lost his job, so I made the decision to support my family,” Agraviador said. “I had always kept a job but I decided to go full time.”
“I was able to keep it together for a while. As a literature major I had to read two to three books a week, so it was a lot. I wouldn’t sleep. I was on the bus reading. I was taking a shower and trying to read. It just wasn’t possible. So, I never finished my first major in Brazil.”
However, that did not deter her from working hard and finding a new path. She came to the U.S. to work as an exchange worker at Yosemite national park.
“That was super random but awesome,” Agraviador said. “I had never left Brazil. It was my first time getting a passport [and] getting a visa.”
Agraviador eventually moved to San Diego, where she realized she was ready to go back to school, but this time she wanted to study something different. And she knew the experience would not necessarily be the same as when she first stepped onto a college campus.
“It’s hard starting things over, especially when you’re an adult. You’re afraid of being judged. You’re afraid that you’re going to fail… So for me, it was really important for me to be in an environment where I felt supported, and I was able to find that at Point Loma.”
“It’s hard starting things over, especially when you’re an adult,” Agraviador said. “You’re afraid of being judged.”
“You’re afraid that you’re going to fail. You’re a little embarrassed. There is shame that goes into it. So for me, it was really important for me to be in an environment where I felt supported, and I was able to find that at Point Loma.”
Agraviador studied organizational leadership through the adult degree completion program. She was driven to set herself up for a career in business.
“I felt that having an educational background in business would help propel my career, and I would really be set up to do anything,” Agraviador said. “Organizational management, that is [found in] every company — understanding different hierarchies, different relationships, project management, and understanding my own leadership style.”
“What is a leader? What is the difference between a leader and a manager? I had no idea what those things were. They were just concepts before I had my degree. I really wanted to have more hands on applicable experience that I could translate very easily to the job market and would make me competitive.”
The learning environment at PLNU proved to be the right fit for her. She said she learned not only from her professors but her peers who also had varied experiences outside of the classroom.
“I remember us having a class on cultural intelligence and cultural IQ,” Agraviador said. “There were people from Mexico. There were people [who] were also the first in their families to go to college. There were lifeguards. It was just a really diverse background. I felt like I could bring my whole self into the space and that [I] was completely accepted.”
However, finishing her degree was not easy. During her last semester, her husband was stationed in Florida, which meant she had to finish remotely. On top of that, Agraviador was expecting her first baby.
“Point Loma was very accommodating of my situation,” Agraviador said. “They allowed me to continue my studies virtually, which was incredible.”
“I was very pregnant at one point, and I remember going into labor and bringing my books and things because I had to post things every monday. I remember I had to take two electives that I did not have, so I went to a military base in Mayport, Florida to take biology course when my baby was only six days old. I left the baby at home just so I could finish my degree on time.”
Her tenacity and drive allowed her to complete her degree on time and look to what was next. Though, she said she had a plan all along.
“I remember, [on] the very first day of class at Point Loma, [my professor] Jeff Bolster asked, ‘What do you want? What are you planning to get out of this?’” Agraviador said. “A lot of people were like, ‘I want a degree. I want a job.’”
“I was like, ‘My dream is to get a master’s degree.’ After I graduated, I went back to ask Jeff for a letter of recommendation, and he was so excited for me.”
She took a couple years break to raise her children and grow her family, but didn’t stop looking for her next step in the education pathway.
“I had been eyeing a program in nonprofit management/non profit leadership for awhile,” Agraviador said. “I have been in the nonprofit space since 2011.”
“I’ve always aspired to become a nonprofit executive. And again, thinking about how I can acquire the tools, the know-how, the connections to really break into the market, I was looking at different programs.”
She applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s Nonprofit Leadership/Management Master’s of Science program and was accepted. She completed her master’s program online while her family was stationed in Kingston, Jamaica.
Afterward, she accepted a job at College Track and has been there ever since doing work that she believes in. College Track is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is driven to support students who are confronting systemic barriers in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
When she began as a development manager, she helped with mentoring first generation students in the D.C. metro area. She also spearheaded the Student Ambassador program at College Track. In the Student Ambassador program, students are trained on sharing their story and finding their voice in public speaking.
“As a first generation college student, I understand really well the challenges students face without the support at home, without the financials. There’s just so many barriers for people who are good students and just want to get an education. It’s a dream of mine that everyone who wants to get a college degree would be able to get one.”
“As a first generation college student, I understand really well the challenges students face without the support at home, without the financials,” Agraviador said. “There’s just so many barriers for people who are good students and just want to get an education. It’s a dream of mine that everyone who wants to get a college degree would be able to get one.”
Currently, as the director of individual philanthropy, she uses her knowledge and drive to navigate personal connections and institutional goals to secure gifts and fundraising that go back to College Track students.
“By working at College Track, I’m really able to help advance the mission of equipping low-income, first generation students with the dream of earning a college degree,” Agraviador said. “I know from my degree at PLNU and my master’s, education has really been the thing in my life that has propelled me to be where I am. I wish that for everyone else.”
Her hope for the next generation is that they continue to find solutions, advocate for justice and take up space and share their experiences.
“I just hope we can advance in social justice, racial equity, [and] educational equity,” Agraviador said. “I have hope that within our lifetime we’re going to be able to make that happen, because I work with young people and they’re brilliant. I think that is really what’s going to move things forward.”
She encourages people with a similar story to hers to recognize the value in their unique experiences.
“Do not discount your life experiences, the diverse perspective you bring as someone who was raised in another country or someone who English wasn’t your first language. There’s so much beauty to that. Sometimes it’s easy to see it; sometimes it’s hard to see it. But ultimately I think that the view in that perspective benefits everyone else.”