Taking Flight: Ecuadorian Native Taught Value of Education at an Early Age

By Tom McLaughlin

In June 2001, 6-year-old Omar Samaniego boarded a plane in his native Ecuador with his parents, Gladys and Fidel, and his older brother, Richard, and headed for the United States.

Alert and self-aware as a child, he knew then that he wouldn’t be coming back.

“I understood that I was leaving behind everyone and everything that I knew,” says Samaniego, who will graduate from Rutgers University–Camden on May 17 with bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science.

But little could he have known that the prospect of a better future awaited him thousands of miles away in his adopted city of Camden. With his parents lighting the way, he would find a world of new opportunities and experiences at the nearby LEAP Academy University Charter School and Rutgers–Camden.

And with his family looking on, Samaniego will now reach a new peak on his continuing journey as he ascends the BB&T Pavilion stage, along with his fellow graduates, and receives two diplomas, officially declaring him a college graduate.

It’s a dream that he knows was years – even generations – in the making.

“As humans, we always want to see the concrete results now,” says Samaniego. “But my parents left behind their family so that they could give me and my brother a better future. Now all of their sacrifice is actualizing.”

Through all of the life lessons that his parents gave him, says Samaniego, one message was always abundantly clear: education is a priority.

The Rutgers–Camden student started off attending public schools in Camden, taking bilingual and English as a Second Language classes in second and third grade, before transitioning to mainstream English classes.

All the while, he says, his parents worked several jobs to support the family, but he never heard them complain.

Then came “the big boom,” he says, remembering his mother’s uncontained excitement at the prospect of him attending the LEAP Academy. His parents applied and, with good grades, he entered the school as a fifth grader in 2004.

His mother was “ecstatic,” understanding what a difference that it could make in his young life, he recalls.

“She knew that was going to be a stepping stone that would propel my education – and my life – forward,” says Samaniego, who recalls spending his summers learning to do math and write in cursive.

For the Rutgers–Camden student, attending the new school was culture shock all over again – adjusting to “new uniforms and a tougher discipline” – but the overriding message was all too familiar.

“I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Dunlap, saying, ‘You are here to do well. Your goal is to make it to college, graduate, and become a productive citizen,’” he says.

Over the years, says Samaniego, the LEAP Academy introduced him to a wide variety of disciplines, which enabled him to learn about his niche subjects, as well as those that weren’t quite a perfect fit.

“I remember being in pottery class – that’s where I found out that I wasn’t the best artist,” he says with a laugh. “But I also remember taking things like robotics club as a seventh grader and learning how to type in technology club as a sixth grader. It is this focus on a well-rounded education that has made the LEAP Academy and its students so successful.”

Upon graduating from the LEAP Academy, Samaniego attended Rutgers University–New Brunswick for a year before missing his network of family and friends at home. He then transitioned to Rutgers–Camden, following in the footsteps of Richard, who graduated from the Rutgers School of Business–Camden in 2009.

Upon arriving, Samaniego was initially set on serving the public as a politician and focused solely on political science. He then took a class in microeconomics on a whim and was hooked, seeing how both disciplines coincided with one another.

True to form, Samaniego took advantage of his opportunities and became immersed in campus life. Among his extracurricular activities, he ran sprints for the Raptors men’s indoor track team, earning NJAC Academic First Team honors as a junior. He also served as chair and a campaign coordinator for the Rutgers–Camden chapter of the grassroots New Jersey Public Interests Research Group.

With the guidance of Rutgers–Camden’s Career Center, Samaniego also gained professional experience in his field in order to set himself apart from other soon-to-be graduates. In 2016, he served as an intern handling workers’ compensation cases, reviewing evidence for claims and adjudicating the cases, for the U.S. Department of Labor. He then worked as a contract specialist, conducting analyses and awarding military contracts, for the Defense Logistics Agency. The prolific experience enabled him to land a job as an underwriting senior associate for global health insurance company Cigna upon graduating.

As he stands on the precipice of his career, Samaniego has advice for younger students that perhaps echoes what his parents once told him:

“Coming here isn’t enough,” says Samaniego, a Rutgers Alfredo Santiago Endowed Scholar. “Realize the investment that you are making in yourself. Try to be the best at everything that you do and learn from your experiences. The opportunity cost is worth it.”

Posted in: Student Achievement

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