Love and Presence: An Immigrant's Dream

Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Phoenix College student Alba Penareta is now part-time staff in the International Department

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Alba Penarete moved to the United States for love. Living in Bogota, Columbia, she met her husband, Alex, online. Their first date was on Alex’s birthday. "I was his birthday cake," Alba laughed. Her husband was born in Columbia but moved to the US when he was five years old and grew up in Washington DC, “so in many ways, he is not Columbian at all,” Alba said. He had flowers for Alba on their first date and sent flowers again on Valentine's Day and for another special occasion. "We dated for two months and I fell in love," Alba said.  

Alba had already earned a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration in Bogota and worked as an administrative manager for her brother Nelson's company. When she told her brother she was going to the US to visit Alex, her protective brother told Alba: “I don't believe that man convinced you with three bunches of flowers! Are you crazy? He could be a killer or something.'" But Alba remained calm. "Nelson," she said, "It's my decision, and I know my decision has consequences. I am ready to assume those consequences."

Alba left Columbia and all her family–two adult children, her mother, and six siblings–to meet Alex in the US. "I decided to take this chance because I wanted to do something else with my life." Alba left behind not just a wonderful family but also her home and almost all of her possessions. "I asked my children, 'Do you want the TV, the sofa?' Take it! Anything you want, take it. Maybe that's why I'm happy now." 

Alba came to the US in April 2016 with just a carry-on bag. "My whole life was in that carry-on," she said. "I put everything in that bag––my head, my body, my heart­––so I am completely here." She married Alex, and her brother Nelson came to the US later that year to see how Alba was doing and meet Alex. “My mom, my brother, my sister, my children all fell in love with my husband too,” she said.  

Her husband encouraged her to sign up for Phoenix College (PC) ESL classes. "I didn't know a word of English, but I had to wait for my legal residency card to get the benefits of in-state tuition.” Both Alba and Alex understand the value of education. They know the American Dream is not about being in the US just to earn money and work. For them, it's about studying and preparing to be fully present in society. And to do that, learning English is an absolute must. 

"When I came for the first time to PC, I was so impressed with everything about this school,” Alba said. “The people were nice and friendly. I thought, Wow, I want to study here. I want to work here." Yet, her first ESL class brought doubts and she considered dropping the class. "I didn't understand anything people were saying," she said. Alba told her husband she didn't think she would pass the class, but he encouraged her to continue: "That is why you are studying. If you understood English, you wouldn't need ESL classes." 

Alba stayed and eventually became a Student Success Specialist for the advanced grammar and writing courses taught by ESL Department Chair Jeff Eldot: "Alba is a serious student with a history of academic success. She conducts her academic life in a determined way striving for growth and leadership. She was a leader in our classroom, always offering help to her students. She put her students first and worked hard to provide them with the highest quality learning experience." 

Outside of class, Alba was a member of the International Club and served as President, Vice President, and Secretary. "I was involved," she said, “and it wasn’t just the International Club, I was joining everything that PC had to offer.”  In December 2020, Paula Chalarca-Chavez, a Program Analyst in the International Education Program, whom Alba met in the International Club, called and asked Alba if she wanted to work in the International Education Program. “The offer sounded like a dream come true!” Alba began working part-time and hopes to find something full-time soon. She completed her Associate's degree in General Studies and will continue to take classes at PC before transferring to NAU for a Strategic Leadership degree. "I am in the 90/30 program, taking 90 credits here, and I will take 30 credits at NAU. I hope to graduate from NAU in 2024."  

In love and happy to be here, Alba remarked, "Many people move from another country, and their hearts and minds are still in the other country." Alba sees the value of adapting to an ever-changing world and being present here. "I love Columbia, my native country, but I love this country because this is my home now."

Her wish is to be able to enjoy life wherever she goes. “You can’t be happy in any place if you can’t be complete in that place,” Alba said.  For now, she is here–mind, body, and heart.

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