Ana Gallardo, left, with her mom Jany Alvarez

This story is Part 1 of FCAN’s The Students Who Make Florida Talent Strong series, which highlights the different pathways available for Florida students to achieve education beyond high school. FCAN believes that in order to build a Talent Strong Florida with a strong, nimble economy, all Floridians need access to high-quality training and learning opportunities after high school and throughout their careers.

Ana Gallardo, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Florida, didn’t have to go very far to witness the life-changing impact a college education can have on someone.

She didn’t even have to step outside her house.

While Ana was in 8th grade, her mother, Jany Alvarez, enrolled at the College of Central Florida to pursue an accounting degree.

“Accounting is something my mom has always enjoyed, so when she decided to go back to study accounting while still working her full-time job, it was her way of saying, ‘I want something for me,’” Ana said.

“I wanted to make more money and expand from where I was,” said Jany, who earned an associate degree from — ⁠and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at — the College of Central Florida in accounting. “Getting a degree has opened so many doors for me.”

Finding their footing in a new country

Jany, 49, had moved Ana and her older sister from Cuba to Citrus County when Ana was 5.

“It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life, coming to the U.S. and trying to get settled in a new life,” Jany said. “We moved here in April 2008, which was a very, very tough time to be looking for a job.”

Jany had grown up in Varadero, a beach resort town in Cuba.

“I didn’t know any other way than to work in tourism at the time,” Jany said of her options after graduating high school. “It was the best way for a young person to be independent.”

After working as a tour guide for several years, Jany transitioned to an office job during her first pregnancy and had her first brush with accounting and administrative work. She returned to and worked in tourism for almost 5 years before moving to the U.S.

Upon arriving in Florida, Jany found the job market pretty challenging.

“I was looking in newspapers, and I had my family telling me if they found something or knew someone who was looking (to hire),” Jany said.

She eventually found work as a gas station associate and worked at the Hilton Ocala for about a year. Jany was working at the front desk at a dental office four years ago when she decided to go back and pursue a degree.

“I’d learned all I could there,” Jany said. “That’s also the place where I really got into accounting after doing some work balancing patient accounts and saw it as a possibility for me.”

Figuring out her educational path

For Ana, watching her mom pursue a college degree has served as an inspiration during her own educational journey.

“My mom risked a lot to come here, so getting a college education was always really emphasized,” Ana said. “When she went back herself and we saw what she was putting into it, it made us say, ‘We’re not going to let her work that hard only for us to throw it away.’”

Ana is currently majoring in sociology at UF and is interested in potentially pursuing a double major with international studies. Her ultimate goal is to assist people in similar circumstances to those of her family upon arriving in the U.S.

“Obviously, making money is important — especially growing up in a family that didn’t have much — but my goal is just to help people, and specifically people in sort of my same situation,” Ana said. “That could be working in an embassy, or staying here and helping people who don’t speak English get resources that me and my mom didn’t have access to.”

While Jany knew she wanted to pursue an accounting degree upon returning to school, Ana says the biggest obstacle in her college-going journey so far was settling on a course of study.

“I was one of those kids who would want to do something, then change my mind,” Ana said. “In 8th grade, I wanted to be a pediatrician. Then it was a journalist. I never had a specific idea because I was interested in so many different things, and when you’re in high school you don’t have the scope of how things work in the world.”

Ana said she received mentorship from Take Stock in Children of Citrus County throughout her years at Lecanto High School, which began steering her toward her current track. However, it wasn’t until Ana’s senior year at Lecanto High that one of the teachers in the IB program suggested the idea of serving the Latinx population in some way.

“I realized that in high school, you learn about all the different subjects and figuring out what you’re good at and what interests you,” Ana said. “College offers the opportunity to go into the one specific field you enjoy and make a career out of it.”

Why college has been worth it

Ana became a U.S. citizen at age 13, after her mom took and passed the naturalization test. As a result, she is able to use a combination of state and federal funds to pay for college, including a Bright Futures scholarship and federal Pell Grant dollars.

Jany currently works full-time at an accounting office as she pursues her bachelor’s degree at College of Central Florida. She is enrolled in 3 classes during the fall semester and expects to earn her bachelor’s within a year.

“The sacrifice I had to make was unbelievable, especially when my girls were younger and I had to be sitting in front of a computer when they wanted to do stuff with me,” Jany said. After initially being a bit intimidated by online classes, Jany says she appreciates the flexibility they afforded her. “I could spend more time with my family and work on my assignments at night when everyone was asleep.”

In addition to expanding her career opportunities, Jany says she feels earning a postsecondary degree has raised her self-esteem. “There’s a confidence that you get once get you that degree, and you know that you can do it.”

Ana says she is currently enjoying pursuing a career field she is interested in and to which she feels personally connected at UF.

“To be educated in something that you enjoy, and then to be able to enter into a career in that area where you can help other people and learn about different things…I’m learning college does that for you,” she said.

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