In El Salvador, life had become quite tiresome for Emely Alfaro-Zavala ’21. She left home early in the morning and came home late at night after a 10-hour shift at the call center, where she was working while pursuing a business degree at the local university. Gangs had forced her mother to abandon her job, and her older brother had gone to the United States to study. Emely was stepping up for the family in his absence.
For three years, she put in long hours at the call center, where she would troubleshoot technological issues for Canadian callers. Though in school, people around her doubted she’d land a better job than this one, which her rare knowledge of English had helped her get in the first place.
“I hated the job in the beginning,” Emely said. “I thought it was the hardest thing ever. I didn’t really like it, but I became really good at it.”
The good thing about it was it afforded sufficient down time for her to research scholarships to schools in the U.S. She had dreamed of following her brother abroad, but the scholarship he had won was not available to relatives. Emely would have to find another opportunity. She saved her money and searched, and one day, she discovered a small, liberal arts college in Kentucky with a no-tuition promise. Emely joined the roughly 700 other international applicants who apply to Berea College each year, hoping for her chance to fill one of the 30 slots.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I just knew that it sounded really cool that they would pay for my whole college. I had very little knowledge. I just knew that I wanted to escape. I wanted to restart.”
She was accepted, and with her brother coming home from school to help the family, Emely got her chance to come to the States and pursue a degree she hoped would unlock more and better opportunities. In Kentucky, like at home, she declared a major in business. But the Fates, as Emely tells it, wove her into a labor assignment that would change everything. She was placed in Information Systems and Services (IS&S), Berea’s information technology department.
“Again I was exposed to technology and helping people, and I was like, ‘Wow, I think the universe is telling me something because I kept getting jobs related to computer science.’”
It may have seemed unusual, too, because back in El Salvador, technology was a man’s world.
“In El Salvador,” she said, “technology is this cool thing that mainly guys get themselves into. Women are not really encouraged to go into tech fields.”
But at Berea, the computer science department is chaired by a woman, Dr. Jan Pearce. Emely took her cue from that and destiny and decided to double major in business and computer science. Though her first labor position was in IS&S, Emely transitioned to being a computer science teaching assistant, eventually working her way up to supervisor.
Emely thrived in her labor position, so much so that Dr. Pearce recommended her for the Wilson and Ellen Best Evans “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award” for stepping up in a time of need.
“When COVID started,” Emely said, “we noticed that interactions in the computer science department were decreasing because everybody was at home. The whole department was online. So, we didn’t have a way to help each other find jobs or help each other succeed.”
So, Emely and a fellow student, Azis ’21, set up a program called “The Alumni Spotlight” that created networking opportunities for Berea’s computer science students.
Studying computer science at Berea opened up a new world for Emely. Not only was she able to study the discipline and work on it through her labor position, she found and took advantage of other opportunities only Berea can offer. She did her first internship in Android development in Washington, D.C. It was an unpaid internship, so Berea covered her accommodations that summer.
Berea also paid for Emely to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2020, the nation’s largest annual meeting of women in computing. She attended with 15,000 other women interested in computer science careers and put in her application to do an internship with Google. On the strength of her experiences, she landed the Google internship, which she was able to do remotely in the summer of that year, as the pandemic raged.
“Berea did so much for us in so many ways, especially international students who leave our home and come to the unknown—who come to a place that looks nothing like our home, but little by little starts feeling like home to the point you’re not wanting to leave. I felt really supported.”
And after a conference, two internships, a double major and some destiny, Emely got her dream job at Google’s Austin campus, where she began a technical residency in cloud computing in August. She had saved money from her campus job to pay for her mother to come to graduation, but because of COVID, there was no graduation ceremony. Instead, she used those funds to go home to visit before starting at Google.
“I knew that I had a very particular story and that I had to work extra hard to make things happen for me,” Emely said. “So that was always a motivator, knowing that I didn’t want to be in this position, and I want to change things for me. And my mom has sacrificed so much, I knew I wanted to make her proud.”
Currently, Emely has a three-year work permit that allows her to stay and work in the United States. She hopes to find a way to extend it so she can continue to support her family. She remains thankful for the opportunities Berea provided for her.
“Because of Berea, I was able to get a college education,” she said. “And because of Berea, I had the best four years of my life.”