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USF scholarship recipient emerges from humble beginnings

University of South Florida business student Marcos Gonzalez and Joni Jones of the Bulls Business Honors program hold tomatoes that Gonzalez brought to a scholarships awards event.
University of South Florida business student Marcos Gonzalez and Joni Jones of the Bulls Business Honors program hold tomatoes that Gonzalez brought to a scholarships awards event.
Published Sep. 6, 2013


When Marcos Gonzalez walked to the stage to address the other USF College of Business scholarship recipients recently, he wore a fitted suit and tie and carried a bucket of unripened tomatoes on his shoulder.

Two weeks earlier, he had been carrying a similar bucket, helping his dad, a migrant farmworker in North Carolina, pick tomatoes, the way he had done every weekend since he was 13 years old.

And the week before that, he was interning at an accounting firm in Beijing, following visits to Dubai, London and Florence, Italy.

Great things, said Gonzalez, the recipient of more than $10,000 in scholarships, come from humble beginnings.

And he remembers those beginnings.

Gonzalez, who considers himself from Immokalee, remembers being the new kid three times a year, moving up and down the east coast depending on when crops died.

He remembers the first days of school each year, seeing classmates in new clothes while he wore hand-me-down shirts and pants. He'd buy new sneakers with his own money.

He remembers the stains on his hands from working in the field — stains he couldn't wash off.

He remembers the advice his dad gave him as he worked alongside him: "You can be out here working in the hot sun breaking your back or you can go to college and get an education and work in a nice air-conditioned office."

It was a hard life, he said. USF is a vacation in comparison.

The summer before he was a senior in high school, Gonzalez enrolled in a seven-week program at the University of Florida.

"I realized I could do college," he said.

He applied to USF and after getting in, applied for every scholarship he could find, he said. He was selected for the Provost's Scholars program at USF, an accelerated three-year program for students who meet certain GPA and standardized test score requirements.

After coming to USF, he found it was easy to stay motivated, he said. A lot of other students had escape routes to fall back on if school didn't work out.

"My escape route at all times is working in the hot sun," he said.

Joni Jones, director for the Bulls Business Honors program, said as soon as she interviewed him for the program, Gonzalez's drive left an impression on her.

"I said to myself, 'He's in,' " she said. "I didn't even know his history then. I had just seen his test scores and GPA."

She had to rank him on a scale of 1 to 5. She wrote down "5 + +."

Jones, Gonzalez said, has been like a mother to him since.

"When you've grown up having social workers coming to your door, sometimes it's nice to have that extra person looking out for you," he said.

Jones led the study abroad trip to Florence, the first of Gonzalez's trips across the world this summer.

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In each country, Gonzalez would take "selfies" in front of famous monuments, posting them to Facebook. Friends would call his parents and ask where he was and what he was doing.

One day he got a call from his grandmother in Mexico, who had heard about a picture he had posted. Her voice was filled with pride, Gonzalez said.

She told him his parents couldn't have asked for a better son.

Gonzalez said he couldn't have asked for better parents.

As he traveled from Florence to Beijing, speaking only English in cities where Italian and Mandarin are the dominant languages, Gonzalez said he began to understand what his parents had sacrificed in hopes of giving him and his siblings a better life.

When his dad was 16 years old, he came to the United States knowing only Spanish. His dad did not have a father around and thought the best thing he could teach his son was to be a hard-working man.

After returning from his travels this summer, Gonzalez said his family allowed him to sleep in the first day. After that, he was working in the field until school started again.

Gonzalez, whose volunteer work and advocacy for poverty have taken him to Washington, D.C., hopes to continue to travel. He wants to work in New York or Los Angeles, or maybe somewhere else on the West Coast, he said.

"Now I want to contribute back to fighting poverty and homelessness," he said.

Gonzalez's younger brother, now a senior in high school, has already started dual enrollment classes and is staying with a relative in Immokalee until he finishes high school.

His family, he said, is thankful for the opportunities he has received.

So when Gonzalez called his father telling him he was the recipient of the scholarships, his father sent up 20 boxes of tomatoes the next day, one for each attendee of the scholarship luncheon.

"He sent really nice tomatoes," Gonzalez said. "When I say nice, I mean, the nicest tomatoes I've seen in my life."

The tomatoes, he said, are a reminder as he moves to the next phase of his life.

"Maybe some things never change," he said. "Or maybe they do."


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