A quiet leader, Victor Fuentes has soaked up every last drop at CSU

Victor Fuentes and mother

Victor Fuentes and his mother, Veronica Sangabriel, on the Colorado State University campus. 

In just three semesters at Colorado State University, Victor Fuentes has done his best to pack in a four-year college experience. He’s a computer science major with a minor in mathematics; a mentor to local Latino youth; and co-founder of a campus group that advocates for undocumented immigrants. A senior who will graduate next month, he’s also living in a residence hall for the first time this year, serving as a peer academic leader (PAL) for the College of Natural Sciences Learning Community.

What’s behind all the activity for this introverted, unassuming, Rubik’s Cube-solving student? The child of undocumented immigrants who takes nothing for granted, Fuentes knows he’s lucky to be here – and he wants every minute to count.

Fuentes’ mother, Veronica Sangabriel, raised her three sons in Lafayette, Colorado. She’s worked as a custodian, a maid, a baby-sitter, and a community liaison.

A good student in the International Baccalaureate program at Centaurus High School, Fuentes thrived in math and took an early interest in computer programming. He watched as his friends were accepted to colleges, and grew discouraged, knowing his immigration status would deny him scholarships or in-state-tuition. Paying out of pocket was out of the question.

Doors open

During that time period, Colorado passed the ASSET bill, which allowed undocumented immigrants to access in-state tuition. Also, a federal policy called DACA began providing limited protection and worker permits for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children.

Taking full advantage of these changes, Fuentes enrolled as a commuter student at MSU Denver, where he began chipping away at credits toward a computer science degree. He received a private scholarship there, but renewal wasn’t guaranteed. While going to school, he worked at Wal-Mart, and later Chipotle.

A friend, whose mother worked at CSU, suggested he look there. “I didn’t have high hopes,” said Fuentes, who knew only a little about CSU because he’d once attended basketball camp here.

While investigating opportunities at CSU, Fuentes discovered a bevy of people who understood his situation and offered help. He received a scholarship through the Community for Excellence Partnership. Suddenly, the door flung open to a four-year education, and Fuentes moved away from home for the first time to transfer to CSU.

Changing lanes

During his first semester, living off-campus with roommates, going home on weekends to work, and cooking himself “food” – his air quotes – Fuentes received an e-mail “out of the blue” from Allie Keller, coordinator of the CNS Learning Community in Laurel Village. She met with him, and encouraged him to apply for a job as a peer academic leader – upper class students who live in the residence halls, and cultivate academic and peer support for underclassmen.

Fuentes became a PAL for the Social Justice and Outreach floor of Pinon Hall, started a computer game development club, and transitioned into the role of coordinator for the PAL program.

“Victor is an excellent picture of determination, resilience and accomplishment,” Keller said. “He has blossomed as a leader, and has become passionate about helping others who have come from underrepresented backgrounds succeed.”

Fuentes’ unusual path of moving into a residence hall as a senior has helped him play catch-up on college life. “I like it because I get to see what I missed out on freshman year,” he said. “It was interesting having a dining plan and swiping in to meals. I loved the experience, and I’m so glad I got to experience it before I graduated.”

Dreamers United

Wanting to also connect with other undocumented students on campus, he and fellow student Brittany Gutierrez started the organization Dreamers United, which lends organization, support and advocacy for the more than 150 undocumented students at CSU. They have a handful of core members so far, and they’ve recently received official student organization status. “We respect how people feel about ‘coming out’ as undocumented,” Fuentes said. “Dreamers United is an organization that is there when you need it, in different ways. There’s no pressure.’

Fuentes also serves as a fellow of Caminos, in which Spanish-speaking CSU students volunteer at Fort Collins High School to offer mentorship and inspiration toward higher education.

Ready to graduate

Fuentes looks forward to graduation, after which he will begin a software engineering job. But he’s not one to forget the past, or the people who’ve helped him succeed.

Keller first connected Fuentes with the CNS Learning Community, and he’s grateful for that. His Community for Excellence mentor, Elias Quinonez, helped him navigate the transfer process and met with him regularly. And Arlene Nededog, director of inclusion for the College of Natural Sciences, was someone who cared about him, “and had no reason to,” he said.

Nededog said she first met Fuentes at the LEAD (Leading, Empowering, Advancing, Determined) Conference hosted by the Black/African American Cultural Center and El Centro. He is a “phenomenal young man,” Nededog said, who “empowers others to succeed and learn both in and outside the classroom.”

Above all, Fuentes said, “I would say that my mom is the reason I was able to make it. She was always encouraging me, and showing me through example that hard work pays off. She and my family are really the reason I am here.”