Students come to the University of Louisville from all around the world. All have a unique story to tell, the singular reason they chose to be a Cardinal.
For several 2022 graduates from Cuba, choosing UofL fulfilled an American dream that has been in the hearts of Cubans for decades.
Among them were identical twins Dariel and Damian Brunelis Fuentes, graduating from the J.B. Speed School of Engineering; Antonio Abreu Almauguer, graduating from the School of Nursing; and Amalia Gamez, graduating from the College of Business. They were among the more than 3,300 UofL graduates who earned degrees and professional certificates in May.
The four students traveled thousands of miles with their families from Cuba to Kentucky, where they said they found a welcoming community in the city of Louisville and, especially, at UofL.
Cuban immigration into the U.S. has been difficult, its rules often changing since 1959, when Fidel Castro took control of the Caribbean island nation and launched its socialist revolution. Approximately 2 million U.S. residents are natives of Cuba or claim Cuban ancestry, according to Migrationpolicy.org.
Louisville ranks among U.S. cities with sizable Cuban communities; others are Miami and Houston. Almost 5,000 Cuban immigrants came to Louisville between 2015 and 2019, according to Kentuckyrefugees.org.
While Cubans are not defined as refugees by the U.S. government — their official designation is “immigrants” — two nonprofits that aid refugees in Louisville are instrumental in their resettlement: Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) and Catholic Charities.
Both organizations have mentoring programs that introduce new immigrants to Louisville’s educational opportunities, including Jefferson County Public Schools, Jefferson Community & Technical College (JCTC) and UofL.
While JCTC is often where immigrants start their postsecondary educations, later transferring to UofL, that was not the case with twins Dariel and Damian Brunelis Fuentes.
They arrived in Louisville in 2015 with their mother, Ilsa Brunelis, whose sister lived in Louisville and sang the city’s praises. The family hoped the vibrant Cuban community would be a steady support system while the relatives became immersed in American culture.
Through KRM, the brothers entered Jefferson County Public Schools’ Newcomer Academy for English language learners in middle and high school. They later attended Academy at Shawnee and, after a meeting with UofL Admissions Executive Director Jenny Sawyer, they started taking dual-credit courses at UofL in 2017.
“Dariel and Damian are two of the most determined young men I have ever met during my tenure at UofL,” Sawyer said. “I met them on a Saturday when they visited campus with KRM, but they took the next step of advocating for themselves so they could be dual-credit students. They have shown us all how determination, focus and hard work can take you anywhere you want to go.”
The brothers graduated with degrees in chemical engineering. Dariel accepted a job in Houston with his dream company, ExxonMobil. Damian works in Dallas for Amazon as an operations manager.
KRM’s Adrienne Eisenmenger, who is the nonprofit’s family and youth services manager, called the brothers “rock stars.”
“They got into Speed School and both just excelled,” Eisenmenger said.
The brothers said their mother was the foundation of it all.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to leave a whole life, you know, 50 years in one country and go to another country where you don’t even know the language,” Damian added, “all to seek a better future for your kids.”
Antonio Abreu Almauguer stayed in Louisville following graduation to work in nursing for Norton Healthcare. His passion is cardiology, where he works with some of the sickest patients.
“Hands-on nursing is what I like, working side-by-side with a patient,” he said. “You really can change a person’s life by taking care of them.”
Abreu Almauguer arrived in Louisville at the age of 18, forced to rethink his plan to become a medical doctor in Cuba. He also had two pressing obstacles: He did not speak English and he did not have the means to pay tuition.
KRM helped him with English classes, and after Abreu Almauguer successfully finished one, he sought more advanced classes. KRM started introducing him to postsecondary education options and took him to UofL’s Belknap Campus, where he felt an immediate connection.
“It was like in the movies, you know? In Cuba we don’t have big schools, the culture that the schools in the U.S. have,” he said.
He began with a few classes at JCTC and then transferred.
His tuition was paid through the Metropolitan College Program at UPS, where he would work the night shift, sleep four hours and then go to class. Supported by his UPS supervisors, he applied for the Norton Scholars Program, which pays tuition in return for an agreement to work for Norton Healthcare after graduation.
He decorated his graduation cap with a tribute to his two grandmothers still in Cuba, thanking them for being his first teachers.
“Family to me is like breath,” he said. Despite limited access to the internet, one of his grandmothers learned how to text her grandson from Cuba. “That kept me going.”
Amalia Gamez, who is a counselor in the Office of Admissions for Hispanic/Latinx students, also worked with KRM and was introduced to UofL through the KRM college counseling program. This year, she was one of two students named 2022 Cardinal Award winners and she was also named a 2022 Outstanding Adult Learner. She graduated with honors in business administration with finance, completing her degree in four years while also working full time.
“Graduating from UofL was a dream come true,” she said. “I am a Cuban girl who has only been in the country for five years, and for four of them, I have been in school.
“I have been working in the admissions office for a year now, as the Hispanic/ Latinx admissions counselor. My work in this position resonates a lot with my personal experience because I was that same kid four years ago looking for answers and wanting to continue my education,” Gamez said. “The fact that I get to help students and families like me is very rewarding, and it’s definitely what I feel most passionate about.”