Walter Centeno's parents raised him to make the path easier for those who come next, much like they did when they were young. His parents emigrated 5,000 miles from Central and South America to the United States to begin their future together.
As Walter tells the story, his dad was visiting the United States when he briefly met his mom. They exchanged phone numbers before returning home, his dad to El Salvador, Central America, and she to Uruguay, South America. They talked for a couple of months while his dad was preparing to start a new life in the United States. He asked her to move to America and start that new life with him, and she agreed. Growing up, his dad worked two jobs to make ends meet, as his mom took care of him and taught him Spanish, which was the primary language spoken at home. By the end of high school, with his dad now working only one job, selling commercial laundry parts, and his mom working as a Spanish immersion schoolteacher, Walter knew he needed to move out of his comfort zone and get a college degree.
Educating himself and others
As a first-generation college student, enrolling in any college would take him out of his comfort zone. But he hit his stride — a mere 740 miles from his small hometown in central New Jersey — at Central Michigan University. Walter found through his college journey he found his path to success and leading others.
His first obstacle was an unexpected one: his parents. Like many first-generation students, Walter took the initiative to begin filling out his Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). He asked his parents for required information, and that is when his plans almost came to a halt. His father was concerned that if the Social Security numbers and tax information got into the wrong hands, his identity could be stolen.
"I found myself preparing a PowerPoint-like presentation to show my dad what the FAFSA is, how it's as secure as doing your taxes online and why it's important to file your FAFSA form," Walter said.
The first semester at CMU was as much adjusting to being away from home as it was pushing away self-doubts about succeeding in college.
"Time waits for no one at college. I thought I was ready for college, but when I got here, I realized I wasn't prepared academically," he said. At the end of his first semester, he was placed on academic probation.
The Centenos face a challenge head-on and find innovative solutions to keep moving ahead. Walter learned he doesn't have to solve problems alone, and there are people to help you in every direction.
Skyler Boeding, residence hall director for Merrill Hall, helped Walter get back on track academically by encouraging him to meet with his academic advisor and success coach, and encouraged him to get involved with campus activities to meet new people. Walter started by joining the Merrill Hall Council, and this soon led to working at the Merrill front desk. As a sophomore, Walter volunteered to mentor third- and fourth-graders in the Lunch Buddies program and connected with student engineering organizations.
Making it easier for those who come next
Boeding saw Walter grow from a freshman questioning whether he should even be in college to someone who makes the path easier for those who come next. And those are the types of leaders who make the best resident assistants. He's a mentor, coach, friend and supporter of the many residents living on campus during a pandemic this semester as a second-year resident assistant in Woldt Hall.
In fall 2018, he found a mentor in Kori Burlager, his supervisor and resident hall director at Woldt Hall. Walter learned what it is like to be a part of an uplifting community that answers the call for help every time. She also raised Walter's awareness that as a Hispanic entering the STEM workforce, he can be a leader to others in the field. According to the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Hispanics are 20% of the population but make up only 7% of the STEM workforce.
As a junior, he is president of the Engineering Society of Detroit Student Chapter at CMU, is growing a student chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and is vice-president of Central Bridge, a student organization that helps high school seniors who are going to be first-generation college students.
"CMU has helped me become a much better person than I was four years ago," Walter said. "I now believe in my dreams and know that if I work hard, I have what it takes to get ahead."