Rodrigo De Leon ‘17 says it’s been just him and his mother since they first arrived to this country together and alone. They emigrated from Guatemala when he was 11 years old and the two of them carved out a life in the United States: she as a housekeeper and he as a student.  

As a high school student in Florida, De Leon thought computer science was the path for him and a story about the 5C Hackathon on the Pomona College website seemed like a sign. In the past four years at Pomona, a lot has changed. De Leon is getting ready to graduate as an economics major, he has a near-fluent grasp of German and he’s going to be teaching mathematics with Teach For America next year.

He credits the opportunities at Pomona College for the ability to explore different paths and forge his own at the same time, while he recalls that for a long time, the idea of pursuing an elite liberal arts education was just a dream.

“I thought I would just have to go to community college,” says De Leon, who identifies as a first-generation college student and low-income.

Luckily, a friend told him about QuestBridge, a program that matches talented first-generation and/or low-income students to elite colleges across the country.

After learning about all the opportunities Pomona had to offer, De Leon applied through QuestBridge and soon after he was invited to fly out for a weekend to get to know the campus.

When he made the decision to attend Pomona, De Leon says his mother was sad about his leaving to go across the country, but she was supportive, “She is as much a support for me as I am for her.”

The separation has been a bit tough, admits De Leon. “Due to financial circumstances, I’ve never been able to fly back home for Thanksgiving or spring break and my mother has never been able to attend family weekend.”

That’s why the community, both academic and social, that De Leon found at Pomona became so vital to him, particularly the Quest chapter, a student group for first-generation and/or low-income students. “The Quest chapter has been extremely supportive for me,” he says of the friendships he’s made, both among students and with the faculty mentor, Professor of Spanish Paul Cahill.

“Pomona has done a great job of helping me grow as a person. The academics have been extremely challenging, and they made me reevaluate what I stand for and what I aim to achieve. Part of the reason why I switched majors was that I was not having that much fun in computer science courses while I was being exposed to other courses that I found more interesting and satisfying,” says De Leon about why he ended up majoring in economics.

De Leon became a fan of German music in high school, which led to an interest in German cars, culture and the language. At Pomona, during Orientation Week, he took a chance and went up to the German Department table where he met Professor Hans Rindisbacher. The welcome he received was enough for him to take classes in German, study abroad in Germany, and form strong bonds with Rindisbacher, Professor Friederike von Schwerin-High and other faculty.

“Even though I was not a German major, they supported me to strive for as much as I could. It shows that people here really do care about you and care about your development.”

In addition, he says his experiences at Pomona working as a tutor for Uncommon Good and with the Draper Center’s PAYS program, and as a volunteer with Pomona Hope, “really pushed my abilities to far greater lengths and made me evaluate my impact on other people and think about how I can have a positive impact on the world.”

For De Leon, the inscription on the Pomona College gates, “They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind,” is a serious call to action. “I absolutely subscribe to that belief, if we’re here [at Pomona] it’s for a reason and we have a responsibility to contribute to mankind in some sense.”

That’s why he is looking forward to Teach For America to help kick-start a career in education. He’s committed to demystifying math and taking the fear out of the subject for high school students. Most importantly, he’s hoping to instill a sense of hope and inspiration that college is attainable for students coming from similar backgrounds as his: low-income and first-generation.

“I spent last summer working at a charter school in Harlem. And now I’m heading to Tennessee and I’m very excited about it. I want to continue growing,” he says. “Education is where I want to stay.”