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Lessons at PHCC help open freedom's doors for native of Cuba

Yohana Consuegra-Reyes plunged into her U.S. studies, despite language barriers.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Yohana Consuegra-Reyes plunged into her U.S. studies, despite language barriers.

SPRING HILL — As a Cuban boarding school student, Yohana Consuegra Reyes found peace putting one foot in front of the other on what became her field of dreams.

Running 13 laps around the school's baseball field every weekday helped her shed some of the frustration and restlessness that built up from spending five days a week living in a large room with more than 60 other girls.

The school, named after the Roman Catholic priest Felix Varela Morales, had no hot water, no air conditioning and sometimes no electricity. Every weekend, Consuegra Reyes took a two-hour bus trip back to her parents' home in Jaruco and returned in time for class Monday morning.

Sometimes, during those 2-mile runs, Consuegra Reyes let her mind go blank and counted the pebbles that passed under her black, off-brand sneakers.

Often, she thought of life in America.

Would she make it here and earn a college degree, or would she finish school in Cuba, only to have her skills languish in a government assignment that had nothing to do with her passion for science and math?

Once she found out she would be moving Florida, she wondered what kind of life she would make when she got here.

A new beginning

It was dark when Consuegra Reyes arrived for the first time at her new home in Spring Hill.

Her grandparents, Lazaro and Remora Reyes, were waiting at Miami International Airport for Yohana (pronounced Jo-ANA); her younger sister, Samira, and their parents, Alejandro and Greity.

An outspoken critic of the Communist regime in Cuba, Lazaro was exiled from his native country in the late 1980s at the age of 52. He emigrated to Tampa, where he held a number of jobs, for the longest period as a shuttle driver at Tampa International Airport. He and Remora moved to Spring Hill in 2005.

As a U.S. citizen, Lazaro could put his daughter, her husband and their two children on their own paths toward citizenship. In August 2008, they finally arrived in Florida.

The family drove through the night. The Reyes' 2,100-square-foot ranch home, painted coral and overflowing with lush plants, was about four times the size of the family's modest concrete home in Cuba that also had lacked hot water. Alejandro had worked as a teacher; Greity as an accountant. She'd earned about 400 Cuban pesos, or $10, a month.

Consuegra Reyes, then 18, didn't speak English, but immediately enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program at a New Port Richey institute that offered classes in Spanish. She landed part-time jobs as a stocker at Walmart and a custodian for the Hernando school district. She watched Looney Tunes and SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons and listened to '80s music on Internet radio to bolster her English skills.

She was finally in America, the land of her dreams, but those first months were not happy ones.

"Nobody told you that you have to work so hard to get what you want, but that's not what shocked me," Consuegra Reyes recalled last week as she sat on the back porch of her grandparents' home, where she and her family still live. "It's that we were discriminated against so much."

She didn't want special treatment. Maybe a little help and a bit more patience as a new citizen trying to make her way.

"So many people didn't want to help," she said. "It was like they felt I wasn't worth their time. I wanted to prove that we have the same rights and we can do it."

Overcoming setbacks

Consuegra Reyes had a passion for math and science, not nursing, so she didn't get a job in that field, even though she finished the CNA program. Instead, she enrolled at Pasco-Hernando Community College in January 2009. She felt confident that her Cuban schools, primitive as they were in terms of amenities, had prepared her well. She knew the material, and she didn't want to wait until she spoke fluent English to start her schooling

She took most of her classes at the North Campus in Brooksville, driving a 1998 Chevy Malibu handed down by her grandfather. The car didn't have air conditioning, and the ceiling liner sagged over her head, but as she pressed the gas pedal with her new black Converse sneakers, she felt free.

One of her first classes was with Bridey Collins, a sociology professor on the West Campus in New Port Richey.

"(Consuegra Reyes) was really was surprised and confused when people were mean for no reason other than that they were white or spoke English or were male," Collins said. "They just had this advantage they had to grind into her soul."

Collins taught her student a mental trick: Treat detractors like mosquitoes. Bear the itch and keep moving. Eventually, when Collins would ask how Consuegra Reyes was doing, she would reply, "Well, some mosquitoes, but good."

Consuegra Reyes got a job tutoring math at the Teaching-Learning Center on the PHCC Brooksville campus. She earned a paycheck and improved her English at the same time, but the benefits went beyond that.

"They trusted me that I could help with something," she said.

Consuegra Reyes earned a reputation as one of the smartest, friendliest tutors, with a special gift for helping students understand the subject, said Becky Grothendieck, the center's coordinator. Students showed their appreciation by bringing food and other gifts.

"She wants to see others succeed, and she's willing to go above and beyond to assist the students who are seeking help," Grothendieck said.

It would have been easy to focus on schoolwork and the job, but Consuegra Reyes wasn't content to do just that.

She joined the Campus Crusade for Christ. As president of PHCC's Phi Theta Kappa international honor society, she helped organize food and clothing drives and other volunteer projects. Picking up trash along the grassy shoulder of Ponce de Leon Boulevard near the North Campus brought back memories of picking potatoes and yucca as required community service in Cuba.

She decided she wanted to become a mechanical engineer, shedding any fear that the goal might be too ambitious.

"That desire has blossomed from the angry little knot of resentment to this full-blown flower of 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing this, I'm on my way,' " Collins said.

Her parents work as custodians for the Hernando school district. The job market is tough enough, but they haven't learned English as quickly as their daughter, so finding other work has been an even greater challenge.

"She gives me strength so I can keep going every day," Greity said in Spanish. "I'm also glad some people gave her opportunities."

A stepping stone

On Tuesday, Consuegra Reyes, now 21 years old, will walk across the stage in the gymnasium of the PHCC West Campus to receive her associate of arts degree. Boasting an overall 4.0 grade-point average, she is headed to the University of South Florida.

"I know it's an accomplishment, but it's just a beginning to something bigger," she said. "PHCC is opening a door for what I really want. It's a door I opened myself, so I feel good."

Consuegra Reyes has twice visited Cuba since arriving in the United States. She was glad to see her friends, but felt a tinge of guilt.

"I feel so sorry that they don't have what I have now," she said.

Not the hot water, cell phone or the laptop computer, she said.

"Freedom."

Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com. Find him on Facebook by searching for Hernando Education Beat — Tampa Bay Times.

Lessons at PHCC help open freedom's doors for native of Cuba 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 1:07pm]
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