Class of 2021: Graduate Student Finds Herself at Home (Again) at RIC

Ckarla Agudelo
Rhode Island College Impact

“I connected with Upward Bound through my high school guidance counselor. For me, that program was essential in my growth as a young professional.”

On Saturday, May 15, thirteen years after she set out to earn her master’s degree in health education, Ckarla Agudelo walked across the Commencement stage to receive her diploma.

A lifelong Rhode Islander and daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s, Agudelo used to think college was something impossible. As a senior in high school, she did not think that she could afford to pay for tuition; she even thought of joining the Army. But in the summer of 2003, she began her career at Rhode Island College as a first-generation student in the Upward Bound program.

“I connected with Upward Bound through my high school guidance counselor,” she recalls. “I had straight As. She checked my grades and said, ‘You have an amazing record. You need to apply for college.’”

With that guidance counselor’s assistance, Agudelo applied for the program and was accepted. The services and supports provided by Upward Bound helped her learn to navigate the higher education system and get acquainted with the college atmosphere. In short, it prepared her to succeed as a college student.

“Going to RIC was one of the best experiences that I’ve had. I lived on campus for three years and was able to get the full experience of living in a college,” she says. “For me that program was essential in my growth as a young professional. I feel that Upward Bound and my parents are the biggest reasons I succeeded.”

As a student at RIC, Agudelo got involved with many activities, including cross country and ballroom dancing, even though she was a full-time student and had a part-time job. After earning her B.S. in health education in 2007, she found a job at the YMCA as a program coordinator. The following year, she was hired to work at the Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket as a program manager; today, she continues working there as an HR Specialist.

In 2008, she decided to take the next step in her education and career, and applied for the master’s in health education at RIC. After taking three classes and working full-time, she became pregnant with her first child. That put a temporary stop on her degree, but not her desire to persevere. “A couple of years later I went back to school and took a couple of classes, but my husband and I were trying to raise a child,” she says. “We only had one car. There were different struggles and life took over, so it kind of derailed me from going to school.”

She was determined to continue, but without getting in debt again. Her plan was to work full time, save money, take one class at a time, and raise her growing family.

Agudelo loves her work at Thundermist, but also likes being out in the community educating people. She has found opportunities to give speeches about nutrition, cardiovascular disease, and other subjects to different audiences, including RIC classrooms. “I was kind of known as the person who could talk and teach about anything related to health,” she notes.

That experience linked her with Professor Andrea Vasquez, who has since left RIC, and Professor Carol Cummings, Associate Professor in the Health and Physical Education Department at RIC, both of whom would invite her into their classrooms to talk to undergrads in the community health program about how her degree has helped her. “As an undergrad you may not always understand how to use your degree, how to apply it in the real world,” Agudelo notes.

Now that she has completed the next step of her professional career, Agudelo would love to work at RIC, which she considers her second family. “It is familiar and I always feel welcomed,” she says. “Many RIC students are first-generation, from different income level families, the majority are working, they have different struggles, and I can relate to all of that.”

Envisioning herself as a future professor, she feels it’s important to connect with students, empathize with their struggles and know where they are coming from. She also believes students need guidance and advice from teachers on how to use their degrees and what to do with their education. “Helping them make that connection is so important. There is inspiration in that; there’s hope. So many of us from underprivileged communities don’t have hope.”

Agudelo says one of the reasons she chose this educational path was because of those feelings and the need to help others. “I want to help people,” she says. “My parents are amazing hard workers from Guatemala and I still feel that their struggles would have been a lot easier if they understood the resources that were available to them. I want to share knowledge and information that provides individuals with opportunities to grow and succeed.”

As she looks towards a potential future as a college professor, she sees a very clear inspiration in Professor Cummings. “Dr. Cummings really wants the best for you. She is very thorough and pushes you out of your comfort zone. She listens to her students and is really good at what she does. She is building the department up, making changes, which is good because education is always evolving and never stagnant,” she concludes, adding, “For me, to be inspirational as an educator is everything. That’s what educators do and I want to become one.”