Cuban U.Va. Degree Candidate Lives the American Dream

May 3, 2010 — When Carlos Cueto, then 19, came to the United States in 2004, he had two goals: to learn English and earn a college degree.

He accomplished the first in just 15 months, and now is on the verge of achieving the second. He is scheduled to graduate from the University of Virginia on May 23.

Under the U.S. State Department's Diversity Visa Program, Cueto and his family emigrated from Havana City, Cuba, to the U.S. They had waited six years for their names to be chosen in a random lottery that makes 50,000 visas available each year for people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. They arrived in Harrisonburg with no money and no command of English.

That thousand-mile trip northward proved to be only the beginning of Cueto's journey. In Cuba, he was a gifted student; he had earned his high school diploma from one of Havana's best schools and had been accepted to the No. 1 spot in medical school there.

In America, he deferred his dream of going to college until he learned English. He taught himself in a year-and-a-half through work, friends and practice books for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. By January 2006, he felt confident enough to attend classes at Blue Ridge Community College.

He also worked and saved for his second goal: college.

As teachers in Cuba, his parents earned less than $15 a month. They abandoned teaching to provide a better financial foundation for their family and eventually obtained a permit to sell crafts to tourists. They came to realize that gaining a better life through education was impossible in Cuba. 

In coming to America, they sought to give Carlos and his younger sister a chance to reach their full potential. "My parents told me education is the best way to build my future," Cueto said.

He learned about U.Va. from friends and Internet research. On a whim one day, while traveling back to Harrisonburg from Virginia Beach, Cueto pulled off Interstate 64 to visit Charlottesville. That detour "changed my life," he said.

His first stop was the International Residential College – where, "ironically I ended up living for three out of my four years at U.Va.," he said.

Quick to make friends, he talked with some of the residents and even sat in on a biology class. After the class, someone suggested he visit the Office of Admission.

"The attention I received there from one of the counselors was so outstanding that I knew right there that I was sending in my application to U.Va.," Cueto said.

It was the only school he applied to.

Cueto entered the University as a pre-med student in 2006, continuing along the path he had followed in Cuba. After his first semester, though, he wavered, and, when his father suffered debilitating injuries in an automobile accident, he considered taking a semester off.

But he knew that education was the reason his family came to America. "I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing," he said.

Cueto instead turned to an idea he had abandoned in Cuba because of the lack of freedoms and the state of the judicial system there: He decided to become a lawyer.  He said after dealing with legal matters connected with his father's accident, his interest was rekindled. "The positive results that came out of it made me realize that the system does work here," Cueto said.

He said his faith in American ideals of democracy and personal accountability were further strengthened by the power of the University's honor system.

"That a student could just leave his or her computer at the library to step outside and take a phone call was just mind-blowing," he said. "Where I come from, this type of actions would be regarded as stupid. Here, it was normal. I could trust the people around me and that was just so, so shocking."

Cueto supported himself throughout his four years at the University by working and receiving federal, state and University financial aid through AccessUVa.

Living in the International Residential College with students from all over the world exposed Cueto to a variety of cultures.

"The first step to tolerance is to understand each other's culture," he said. " One way to understand culture is through language."

Language became the foundation for his pursuit of a law degree. A Spanish literature major, Cueto has explored all the languages in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He also took Italian in the University's 12-credit, eight-week intense Summer Language Institute.

"Carlos is a very talented and mature young man who has shown tremendous strength and perseverance in view of difficult circumstances," department chair Maria Inés Lagos said. "His sense of responsibility towards his family, especially after his father’s tragic accident, is truly admirable. I have no doubt that he will be a successful professional who will make us all proud."
In fall 2008, he attended the University's study-abroad program in Valencia, Spain, and participated in two Portuguese immersion programs, one with Duke University and another with Harvard University, in the summer of 2008 in Rio de Janeiro.

He laid the foundation for his goal of becoming an international lawyer working with the United Nations, with a focus on the Americas. Cueto has received a scholarship, which will cover 50 percent of his tuition, to study law at Tulane University, where he also plans to continue his study of Portuguese.

— By Jane Ford