Jonathan Bruzon was proud of his straight A’s during his sophomore year at Riverview High School, but the idea of college made him nervous. His mother was from El Salvador and now works for a cleaning service, and his father emigrated from Cuba and fixes ruptured sewer pipes for Sarasota County. College didn’t seem like a place for people like him.
Then his guidance counselor introduced him to Hector Tejeda.
Tejeda, 63, came to the United States from Guatemala with his pregnant, 16-year-old mother when he was 1 year old. He grew up in a rough part of New York City. When his mother couldn’t care for him, he was placed in foster homes. The future looked bleak, but a guidance counselor encouraged him to apply to college. Tejeda eventually earned a Harvard M.B.A. and worked in upper management for Pfizer for more than 25 years.
In 2014, Tejeda, now retired, moved to Sarasota and heard about UnidosNow, a nonprofit created to bring Hispanics into the mainstream. He was moved by the young people he met. “I saw myself in these kids’ eyes,” he says. “Somebody needs to tell them they have hope and potential.”
Tejeda began to work with UnidosNow’s Future Leaders Academy to help low-income, first-generation high school students dream big and attend college. He spends hours with the students he helps, learning what they like, what they’re good at, and how they need to challenge themselves. More than 400 students he’s worked with have gone to college, many on full scholarships.
Bruzon is hoping he’s one of those students. Because of Tejeda’s encouragement, Bruzon enrolled in his school’s challenging International Baccalaureate program, with ambitions of going to Vanderbilt University.
“Meeting Hector was one of the most important factors in determining the path my life would take,” Bruzon said. “Without him, I would have been completely overwhelmed by the college process.”
“Helping kids at UnidosNow is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Tejeda. “There’s so much satisfaction. We change lives.”