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Guatemalan native overcomes language barrier and excels at Morrisville State College

Will graduate during commencement ceremony May 18
MORRISVILLE, NY— Gilroy Alvarez’s dorm room is decorated with some of his most-prized possessions. There’s a championship soccer medallion hanging in a window, a poster of Jesus Christ, a Morrisville sweatshirt, award and leadership certificates, a soccer ball, and a majestic sky blue and white-trimmed flag representing his Guatemalan heritage.

Soon he will add college diploma to his treasures.

On May 18, Alvarez will graduate from Morrisville State College with a degree in individual studies. The ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. in the recreation center. The degree symbolizes one of Alvarez’s greatest accomplishments in life.

Alvarez grew up on a small island in Guatemala, just off of the Caribbean Coast, a land rich with culture and so widespread with poverty and illiteracy that college isn’t an option for most.

Four years ago, he packed up his belongings and moved to the United States, trading the orchids, exotic birds and sandy beaches of his homeland for opportunity; namely the chance to go to college.

Alvarez settled in Bronx, NY, got his GED and took a job in a bakery making minimum wage. He didn’t plan to work there long as his sights were set on going to college. But there was one obstacle in his way. He spoke no English.

“People would tell me I couldn’t go to college because I didn’t know English,” the Spanish-speaking student said.

Determined to overcome the language barrier, Alvarez took an English as a Second Language course then enrolled at Morrisville State College where his cousin was already a student.

Still unable to speak or comprehend the language well, his first semester was a challenge. As he struggled to communicate and understand what his teachers were saying, Alvarez relied heavily on a Spanish-to-English pocket dictionary and Google Translate.

“I remember eating barbecue wings and French fries every day at first because they were the only things I knew how to order,” Alvarez said with a boyish grin.

It didn’t take him long to pick up the language and within two semesters, he was comfortable speaking it.
It’s an accomplishment he shares with professors, deans and his soccer coach, who served as mentors and made sure he never lost sight of his dreams.

“People all around me encouraged and motivated me,” Alvarez said. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I kept telling myself it would get easier.”

Unwavering determination would eventually define the soft-spoken student who enrolled at MSC as an at-risk student taking remedial courses, and later excelled in the classroom earning a spot on the Dean’s List. He also earned an academic achievement award in individual studies.

Perseverance carried over onto the field too, where Alvarez shined as a member of the college’s men’s soccer team which captured the 2012 NEAC tournament championship.

When he joined the team, Alvarez turned to his teammates for help because he couldn’t follow what his coach was saying. Once again, he refused to give up.

“I have never seen someone have so much determination,” soccer coach Kyle Graves said of the mid-fielder whose skills and agility earned him honors of NEAC All-Conference Player twice, Player of the Week, and Soccer Newcomer of the Year in 2011. “He has pure talent. People are amazed at what he can do on the field.”

Dean Paul Griffin, who taught Alvarez in Writing Essentials, a basic language skills class, was equally impressed with his tenacity.

“I was concerned because he was not a native speaker of English,” Griffin said. “I discussed this with him and he told me, ‘I will do whatever it takes.’ And he didn’t make a promise he couldn’t keep. He went on to get the highest grade in the class, the only “A” I gave.”

“It is remarkable to think where he started,” Graves said. “He proved to be one of the hardest-working students I have ever known and never let a language barrier be an excuse or hinder him.”

That resonated in other aspects of life too, including adjusting to American culture. Growing up in a country that has only two seasons, spring and summer, Alvarez had to get used to snow and cold temperatures, new food and customs. And, he had to adapt to a fast-paced lifestyle he had never known.

Getting involved helped him acclimate. In addition to being a student-athlete, Alvarez participated in campus activities and joined the Brother’s and Sister’s in Christ Club. He was also selected to participate in The New York Model Senate Project, an annual leadership development program.

“That was an amazing experience,” said Alvarez, who received a certificate of achievement in student leadership for participating in the program. “I learned about different views of the senate and government and a lot about politics.”

He also participated in numerous volunteer and fundraising efforts as a member of the men’s soccer team.

Alvarez’s journey to the United States has opened many doors and has also taught him valuable lessons about himself.

“With God everything is possible,” the religious Alvarez said. “I always dreamed for a better future and now I have a chance to graduate; to be somebody; to get a job and help my family.”

Life today is full of ambitions and ideas for Alvarez. He plans to return to MSC to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business administration and to open and run his own business someday. He has also set goals to become fluent in English, make the President’s List and become captain of the MSC men’s soccer team.

“With his physical and mental endurance, he can do anything,” Graves said. “He is unwilling to quit. It just isn’t in his vocabulary.”

For more information about the college’s commencement ceremony, visit

Morrisville State College sets the world in motion for students. Curriculums are enriched with applied learning and pave the way for opportunity at both the Morrisville and Norwich campuses. An action-oriented, interactive learning lab, the college is a national leader in technology. Lauded for its exemplary, innovative and effective community service programs, the college was named to the 2012 President’s Higher Community Service Honor Roll. Visit to experience, Morrisville in motion.