Nursing Graduate Persevered Through Family Tragedy in Ecuador and Other Hardships in a 20-Year Quest to Earn a College Degree


Silvia Tenezaca

Silvia Tenezaca hopes to specialize in pediatrics or labor delivery in her career.

By Jeanne Leong

When Silvia Tenezaca encounters obstacles thrown her way, she conquers them with grace.

She overcame a family tragedy and medical crisis, economic challenges, and a language barrier to complete her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Rutgers University‒Camden.

To escape poverty and a dearth of jobs in Ecuador, Tenezaca came to the United States in 2002 at the age of 21 to join family members in Brooklyn. Working at a dry cleaning business, she improved her English language skills by speaking to people at her job and by watching TV.

“My desire to attend college was stronger than any language barriers,” says Tenezaca, of Sicklerville.

After moving to southern New Jersey, she was ready to attend college, but she was working to pay off a debt for a loan that she took to cover her costs to come to the United States. Then, a family tragedy forced her to put her college plans on hold.

A bus accident in Ecuador in 2010 killed 38 people, including Tenezaca’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Another sister and four-month-old niece were severely injured in the accident. Tenezaca moved back to Ecuador to plan the funerals, and care for her sister, niece, and 11-year-old son who was being raised by her mother while Tenezaca worked in New Jersey and sent money to support her family in Ecuador.

Tenezaca had no experience caring for someone with severe injuries, but became the caretaker for her sister and niece. During the year that Tenezaca nursed her sister back to good health and cared for her niece, she decided to pursue a degree in nursing.

“I saw how love and compassion can help a person to recover,” Tenezaca explains.

She enrolled in college in Ecuador, spent one year in the nursing program, and planned to remain in her home country to work as a nurse, but life circumstances altered her plans. Her second son, who was born in New Jersey, joined her in Ecuador for a short time, but was not adjusting well to the living conditions and became ill, so she sent him back to New Jersey to live with his father.

“Again, my life was not complete,” says Tenezaca. “I needed to come back to New Jersey with my older son.”
Tenezaca returned to Sicklerville in 2012 with her oldest son, who was 13 at the time.

After paying for the funerals in Ecuador, health care for the family, and living expenses, Tenezaca was again deep in debt.

Working full-time to pay off her credit cards and raise her three sons, Tenezaca continued preparing for college. She took English as a second language classes to improve her reading and writing skills, passed the General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency test, and graduated from Camden County College before enrolling at Rutgers‒Camden.

It was during a Rutgers–Camden study abroad course, “Population Health in Cuba,” that Tenezaca’s college career accelerated. During the seven-day trip to Cuba, she shared her life story with course leader Nancy Pontes, an assistant professor of nursing who quickly became a mentor throughout Tenezaca’s journey at the Rutgers School of Nursing‒Camden. When Tenezaca considered dropping out of the program because of her responsibilities at home, work, and school, Pontes encouraged her to continue pursuing her dream.

“Silvia has a tenacity that is remarkable,” says Pontes. “Her tenacity is balanced with her gentle spirit.”

Tenezaca was in the first group of students to complete Rutgers–Camden’s community interpreter course to provide Spanish-language translation services to South Jersey residents who need such services to fill out medical forms, translate doctor’s instructions, and read medicine labels.

“I love helping the patients,” says Tenezaca. “I identify with them. I know how hard it is as an adult to learn a new language.”

An internship at the LEAP Academy University Charter School gave Tenezaca experience translating for young patients and their parents in the Camden school’s health center.

While taking classes at the Rutgers School of Nursing‒Camden full-time during the day, Tenezaca held a full-time job as a home health aide overnight while her family slept. Now, Tenezaca works as a critical care technician at Cooper University Hospital.

She applies the lessons she learned from caring for her sister and niece in Ecuador to her work in South Jersey.

“I have compassion for people because of what I have experienced. I totally understand when people are going through an illness and dealing with the death of a family member.”

Tenezaca hopes to specialize in pediatrics or labor delivery in her nursing career.

This spring, Tenezaca and her family will celebrate three milestones. Tenezaca will earn her bachelor of science degree in nursing from Rutgers‒Camden, her oldest son is graduating from Rowan University, and her second son is graduating from Camden County Technical School, and will attend Rutgers University‒New Brunswick in the fall.


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