‘The land of opportunities’: Jamaican Immigrant Sees Dream Realized with College Degree

MIAMI –  On the wall of Alexander Nunes' bedroom is a map of the world. A scattering of blue push pins represents the places he hopes to visit one day. Others anchor him in where he's been.

The red one on Miami marks where the 24-year-old now lives and works as a Starbucks shift supervisor. The yellow one over Jamaica identifies the island of his youth.

It was there that he spent his childhood surrounded by his large, close family. Weekends were whiled away at the beach. Evenings centered on meals around the thick mahogany dining room table that had been in his family for generations. On quiet afternoons, his grandfather, Patrick Harker, played records for him – Louis Prima, Nat King Cole and other oldies. Sometimes they just sat and listened together. But other times they’d talk, the older man encouraging him to go for anything he wanted in life.

As Nunes got close to graduating from high school, he began to realize that to do that, he might have to leave the land he knew. Jamaica was beginning to change, he said, crime was on the rise, and there weren’t as many options for higher education. His family was successful - they owned a large music store and his grandmother had numerous properties - but he had dreams that stretched beyond the island.

When he was 18, he decided to move to the U.S. “It’s the land of opportunity, right?,” he said on a recent sunny afternoon as he sat in his Miami living room.

On Monday, he’ll achieve one of his biggest dreams as he becomes the first person in his family to graduate from college as he gets a diploma from Arizona State University through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.

His mother, Frances Harker Morales, will be with him in Tempe, Ariz., to see him cross the stage. Her eyes grow damp when she thinks of it. “It means everything to me,” she said.

Seeing her oldest son graduate validates a hard decision she made – when Nunes said he wanted to move to the U.S. she couldn’t bear the idea of being so far from her oldest son so she, her husband, Reisner Brizuela Morales; daughter, Brittany; and youngest son, Christian, moved to Miami as well.

 “It was a decision I made for my children,” she said.  “I’m very proud of all of my children.”

Morales once hoped to go to college herself – but the birth of her first child when she was 18 and then a busy work and home life got in the way. She knows that a parent’s deepest hope for a child is that they will have a long, happy life -- and that they will be even more successful than the generation that came before. That’s what she wishes for her son. “I pray he’ll achieve all he aspires to. He has big dreams.”

Worlds to explore

Nunes wanted to be the next Walt Disney. Growing up, he doodled as he dreamed of creating magical lands like Disneyland that others can explore. As he got older, he began to see the magic in the real world around him and developed a thirst to travel and explore. Blue pins on his map already mark China, Hong Kong and Japan as future destinations. “I want to experience everything,” he said.

He and his girlfriend, Celeste Boncompte, whom he met when she was working at Starbucks, worry about the environment and diseases that are killing coffee trees in some countries. He talks fervently about how Starbucks is trying to help farmers replace their dying trees by giving them free, grafted trees that are more disease-resistant. He thinks about the countries where the beans come from that he works with in the store, and the duality that the world is vast and yet we are linked in small ways.

Recently Nunes added a new pin to his map – Seattle, home of the Starbucks Partner Support Center where he hopes one day to use his new degree and work in marketing. Starbucks doesn’t require partners to continue with the company after they graduate, but Nunes hopes to. It’s a company that has helped him see the possible. He’s already thinking of the mark he wants to leave. At the end of his life, he says, when he leaves this world, he hopes to have spent his time spreading positive energy. He wants to be successful so he can do good for others. 

Bringing everyone together

Last Wednesday as Nunes walked into his store to head behind the counter, a line stretched six people deep. It’s one of the busiest stores in the district, notes district manager Sef Sample, but “he brings everyone together during times of stress.” His store manager, Millie Posada, said he’s known for being calm, encouraging and reliable. It’s not surprising considering a bookshelf at his home is lined with childhood awards, including numerous ones for being “Most Disciplined” – even as a fourth grader.

For the past several years he’s balanced going to school full-time with working full-time as a Starbucks shift supervisor.

“He’s always wanted to pay his own way – even from a young age,” said his mom. In Jamaica, the family always paid for everything with cash, he said. His grandmother, Leslie Harker, taught him to save up for what he wanted and not go into debt. But he worried about how he’d be able to do that and afford college. His plan was to just go slowly, paying for a few credits as he was able. So when Starbucks announced the ASU program, he jumped at it. Now he’s one of 7,172 Starbucks partners in the program.

Sample said the program opens doors for partners. “Some (Starbucks) partners didn’t have the chance to go to college for various reasons,” she said. “My previous district had an average household income of $34,000 a year. This (program) can give partners a sense of pride and accomplishment. It can make a real difference in their families.”

Nunes is the first graduate of the program in Sample’s district of 13 Starbucks stores. She said he’s inspiring to others who see him balancing a busy job and college. It made an impact at home too. His stepfather, Reisner Morales, said Nunes motivated him to return to school. He’s pursuing a degree in sports medicine. “He’s my idol,” he said. “I see the effort he’s made and the things he’s doing.”

And while Nunes is the first college graduate in his family, he’s eager to point out that soon he won’t be the only one. His sister, Brittany, 28, will be graduating next month. He’s also quick to note how smart his younger brother is, talking about him as a budding entrepreneur who built his own computer.

‘Alex is going to do great things’

On the living room wall of the family’s Miami home hang three Chinese symbols that translate to love, peace and longevity. Figures of elephants that adorn the fireplace mantel represent good luck and long life. This is a family that believes in symbols.

Before he left Jamaica, Nunes began wearing a gold chain that his grandmother gave him. After his grandfather died in 2011, he looped the older man’s gold ring through it to wear as his talisman. He hasn’t taken it off since.  “I’m sentimental,” said Nunes.

In the last few years of Nunes’ grandfather’s life, it was hard for him to speak. He was dying of cancer and his larynx had been removed as part of the treatment. To make himself heard, he had to concentrate and force air up his throat to cause his vocal chords to move.

But Morales remembers one thing her father really wanted to say to her about his grandson. “He told me Alex is going to do great things,” she said.

She wishes that he was here to see her son graduate. When she closes her eyes, she can see the joy and wonder he would have on his face as his grandson achieves something no one in their family had yet.

But she knows that as Nunes graduates Monday, he’ll be wearing the necklace from his grandparents. And then, when he returns home, he’ll update his map, switching the color of the pin marking Tempe, Arizona, from representing where he wants to go to where he’s been -- the past and the future reaching toward each other as new worlds await.

At Arizona State University’s spring graduation exercises May 8 in Tempe, Arizona, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz will give his first-ever commencement address. More than 260 partners are graduating from ASU, the biggest-yet partner graduating class. Starbucks College Achievement Plan graduates will be in the audience. Commencement will be streamed live at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (7:30 p.m Pacific Time) at http://www.ustream.tv/asutv.

Meet other partner-graduates:

Tragedy derailed Laura Fobes’ first shot at a college degree; now the 42-year-old mother of three will walk across the stage in Tempe.

Finding Home: Childhood Hardships Strengthen Starbucks ASU Graduate, Sirikwan O’Gorman.

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