Overcoming Obstacles: 42-Year-Old Student to Earn College Degree Same Month Son Graduates High School
(April 29, 2019) – Many college students face obstacles on their journey to earn a degree, but Yoiri Porrata had to overcome more than most.
He dropped out of college in order to leave his native Cuba and lost his job and house during the 2008 financial crisis. Then he was denied financial aid when he returned to college 15 years later in the U.S. and struggled to make ends meet while being pushed to the edge of quitting.
Now Porrata is earning a degree in Information Systems Management from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. What makes it even sweeter is that through his perseverance and support from the USFSP community, Porrata is on his way towards fulfilling a promise and earning his degree at the same time – in fact, the very same month – his son will receive his high school diploma.
“When I thought about returning to college several years ago, I realized if I went back full time and graduated on time, it would be when my son would also graduate high school,” said Porrata. “I would be an inspiration for him.”
Porrata’s circuitous path began in Cuba, where he was born and raised. In his final year at Manuel Ascunce public university, Porrata was on the verge of completing his degree to teach English as a second language in 2000. However, it was a difficult time for the island nation. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and being economically tied to its communist big brother, Cuba’s economy went into a tailspin. Some in the country started to leave, especially those with college degrees. To thwart a further brain drain, Cuba enacted a law in 2000 requiring those with a college degree to obtain additional reviews and approvals in order to emigrate.
Two years prior, Porrata had applied for an American visa, hoping to find greater opportunity elsewhere once earning his degree. The new law brought him to a crossroads: graduate and likely remain in Cuba or drop out and have a better shot at leaving. He decided the best course of action was to drop out. It would be 15 years before he would take another college class.
In 2001, on the same day when he and his wife found out the sex of their first child, a boy, he got word that his visa had been approved. They moved to New Jersey to find work and lived there for several years. Wanting to buy an affordable house and raise their family, they came to the Tampa Bay area in 2007.
“And then everything collapsed,” said Porrata. “I was working at Home Depot and when the housing market collapsed so did the construction market and so did my job. Eventually, we lost the house.”
He landed on his feet working on the assembly line of a medical device manufacturing company in Largo. The job provided stability, and over the years he was able to work his way up from the assembly line to operations. This is when the notion of returning to school crept in. Porrata wanted to finish what he began so many years ago.
He talked with colleagues about what would be a good major to pursue based on his job experience and furthering his career in the field.
“If you can find something that can combine business and information technology, that would be extremely helpful,” Porrata said, echoing his co-workers. “I came across Information Systems Management, which was a business degree but provided an understanding of technology and how it integrated with business in the 21st century. Even better, I could earn it at night after work at USF St. Petersburg.”
Then another obstacle stood in his way. Because he had so many college credits from his university days in Cuba, receiving financial aid proved elusive. For three years, Porrata paid his whole way – without any aid – while going to school full time and working full time.
When entering his fourth year, his financial situation was finally catching up to him.
“I’ll never forget the day he came in and told me he was going to quit,” said Julie Harding, Porrata’s academic advisor at USF St. Petersburg since day one.
“I came to a point a year and a half ago where I just couldn’t make ends meet while supporting my family. My work offered tuition help, and I was working full time, but it just wasn’t adding up anymore,” said Porrata.
Harding, who has encountered this roadblock before with students, got to work. Though he was denied financial aid before as a pre-major, Harding confirmed they could resubmit a SAPPET (Satisfactory Academic Progress Petition – Maximum Time) after declaring his major. In the petition, they documented the exact classes Porrata would take and in which semesters over the next year and a half until graduation. Porrata also submitted a personal statement.
The petition went in front of a financial aid committee for review.
“Ultimately his petition was approved,” said Harding. “I was elated because I knew all he had to overcome and I knew it meant he would now finish.”
The aid relieved Porrata’s financial burden, allowing him to stop worrying about money and focus on finishing his coursework.
“This is a great example of how multiple departments diligently work together to support students,” said Cynthia Collins, Director of Academic Advising at USFSP. “In this case, they worked to help a student seek an exception to an originally denied financial aid petition and find him the necessary resources to complete his degree.”
Now just one class away, less than two months till graduation, Porrata is thinking about his plans for the future. He hopes to look for opportunities within his own company to move up with his new degree.
“I have learned a lot in my time at USFSP, skills that are so relatable to my job and professors that were just awesome at teaching subjects from marketing to management,” he said.
He is also relishing the day he earns his degree, hoping his children receive inspiration from his story.
“Teenagers can sometimes turn you off,” Porrata said. “But your actions cannot be ignored.”