Overcoming Challenges to Earn a College Degree

Jan 22, 2019

One Student’s Family Economic Security Program (FESP) Success Story
Pictured above, Daniela Giraldo is a FESP student at Housatonic Community College 

When Daniela Giraldo emigrated from Colombia to the US with her family, she couldn’t have guessed that the journey would lead her not only to a new home, but also a new dream for her career. Today, that dream is well on its way to becoming a reality through the support of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (FCCF) and its Family Economic Security Program (FESP).

Conceived, launched and co-funded by FCCF’s Fund for Women & Girls, the Family Economic Security Program provides wraparound support services that range from financial assistance to coaching, with the goal of empowering low- and moderate-income working students to overcome challenges and earn postsecondary degrees or marketable certificates. After early partnerships with Norwalk Community College and Housatonic Community College showed measurable results, FESP has been adopted by one additional community college system, and others are also interested in the program’s scalable model for student success. 

Getting a fresh start through the Family Economic Security Program

For Giraldo, FESP was a welcome helping hand after daunting setbacks. In Colombia, she had been a final-year law student, set to graduate after three more classes and the completion of her exams and thesis. When she moved to America, Giraldo planned to finish her degree at Yale. But she soon discovered that none of her credits would transfer, and that the cost was prohibitive.

The language barrier was also a significant hurdle. Because she spoke no English, Giraldo realized that her employment prospects in America were limited to jobs she would have never considered in Colombia. She struggled to connect with a new community.

Determined to teach herself English, Giraldo picked up a Spanish-English dictionary and read whatever she could get her hands on. She also started watching subtitled videos on YouTube. In the process, she became deeply interested in nutrition as a holistic approach to wellness.

“Daniela is very bright, very serious about her studies and very committed to improving her English. She’s also passionate about nutrition – she lives it. My one goal was to build her self-esteem, because she felt alienated and self-conscious about her English. Taking a job greeting people to the Family Economic Security Program office helped Daniela become more social and engaged, and gave her more confidence to take the next steps toward a new career path.”
– Daniela Squizzato, Achievement Coach & FESP/Academic Advisor
Housatonic Community College

 This new passion would turn into the first step for a new career path when, two years after moving to the U.S., Giraldo connected with the Family Economic Security Program at Housatonic Community College. There, Achievement Coach and FESP Advisor Daniela Squizzato saw great promise in Giraldo, from her work ethic to her commitment and interest in nutrition.

A promising future with the help of an innovative educational model

 Seeing that Giraldo was still struggling with her language skills and confidence, Squizzato recognized that a support network could make all the difference to keep her moving forward through this transition. She found Giraldo a reception position at the FESP Advisors’ office to practice regularly engaging with people in English, and connected her with several student study groups.

Looking back, Giraldo sees the coaching she received through FESP as a game changer – from the one-on-one interactions with Squizzato, to instructional sessions on money management and managing credits.

“When I joined the Family Economic Security Program, I was lonely. I found a friend and a mentor in my coach, Daniela Squizzato, who also speaks Spanish. I started thinking that my future awaits me in a different field than law, and I’m now working toward an associate degree in Biology at Housatonic Community College with plans to transfer to a nutrition program. I’m also working on a certification as a health coach. The most influential lesson I’ve learned is to accept changes and evolve with them. Starting from zero is risky, but the bigger risk in life is to not take any risks.” – Daniela Giraldo, Participant
Family Economic Security Program

 Thanks to her newfound skills, confidence and understanding of possible paths forward, Giraldo solidified her commitment to pursue a career that uses her skills in a more personal way: teaching people how to improve their lives through nutrition. Her decision to reset her career focus was reaffirmed when she took a rewarding job working with kids at the Bridgeport YMCA.

Giraldo is now set to graduate from Housatonic Community College this year with an associate degree in Biology and plans to transfer to a nutrition program. She’s also working on earning her health coach certification through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition of New York.

But for Giraldo, the most important lesson she’s learned on this journey doesn’t have anything to do with diet. Rather, it’s an appreciation that a good education is the key to creating a better future – and that, no matter how great the challenges, being true to yourself and evolving with change is always worthwhile.

The Family Economic Security Program, designed and launched through FCCF’s Fund for Women & Girls, is now a scalable model for student success that is being evaluated by community colleges in Connecticut and nationwide. Learn more about our work on innovative solutions to close the opportunity gap in Fairfield County.