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Pursuing a third career, and nailing it

Geology major Cesar Garcia never realized scholarships could support a student like him

Tuesday Aug 04, 2015

When Cesar Garcia shook hands with representatives of the Calumet Gem and Mineral Society at last spring’s Honors Tea for the Indiana University Northwest College of Arts and Sciences, the moment seemed like proof that he is finally on the right path.

The 41-year-old father of two never believed in scholarships before, at least not for a student like him. A part-time student who works full-time as a critical care paramedic, the Hammond resident is a serious student, but he never thought he’d be eligible for any kind of scholarship.

“When I came here, I knew I was going to give it my all,” Garcia said, “but I wasn’t shooting to be top of the class and I wasn’t shooting for a scholarship. I just didn’t think I would get one. I figured there are a bunch of people who are just as smart or smarter with just as much dedication.”

What Garcia soon learned though, is that scholarships aren’t reserved only for the best students. They are rewards for academic achievement, sure, but they also exist to enable good students like him to go to school in the first place.

That is precisely the reason the Calumet Gem and Mineral Society, formerly the Duneland Rock Club, established this particular scholarship in the 1970s – to help students like Garcia follow their passion for geology, a field of study they say is important to the world, but tends to be less popular.

An inner voice calling

Garcia wasn’t immediately sure of a career path when he graduated from Bishop Noll Institute. He had always been drawn to science and the outdoors, but he wasn’t sure how to make a career out of that interest. In need of a reliable route to a well-paying job, he first pursued electronics engineering technology and earned an associate’s degree that he says “doesn’t count for much.”

He worked in that field for a while but wasn’t really happy. Unsure of what to do next, Garcia moved to Mexico, largely because he wanted to take up rock climbing. But he also needed to make a living, so he ran a mobile phone business that fizzled, prompting him to take up a second career as an Emergency Medical Technician.

Now back in the U.S. with a wife, two children, and a career as a paramedic, Garcia is now thinking about the physical demands of the job and possible burnout in his current career. With a smattering of college credits from other institutions, he enrolled at IU Northwest in 2014, following a circuitous route that eventually looped back to his original love of science and rock climbing.

What really “sealed the IU Northwest deal,” as he puts it, was the effortless pathway between Ivy Tech Community College and IU Northwest. Not only did those credits transfer, but as a transfer student from Ivy Tech, Garcia qualified for another unexpected scholarship that resulted in a $1,000 credit to his tuition bill.

Small department, big advantages

At first unsure about pursuing geology for fear that stopping at a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be enough to get him his dream career, he soon learned the perks of a small but formidable department.   

Garcia expressed his concerns to Professor of Geosciences Zoran Kilibarda. He wondered aloud if a bachelor’s degree would be enough to get a good job without going graduate school.

Kilibarda had told him, “if you went to another school, I don’t know, but here, we are fortunate that in our program, there are so few of us, that it is like being in graduate school because we are doing things here that if you were to go to a larger school, you would not be participating in because those opportunities are reserved for graduate students.”

Kilibarda then invited him to participate in a research project involving the plastics washing up on local beaches. Right now, they are collecting and categorizing the shore garbage, but down the road, they will begin analyzing the microscopic properties and determining the impact of the plastics on the beaches and in the lake.

“I am definitely doing things at an undergraduate level that I did not expect to be doing,” Garcia said.

Paying it forward, a contagious mentality

Chris Clemens, president of the Calumet Gem and Mineral Society, attended the Honors Tea when Garcia was honored with his organization’s scholarship. He said it was gratifying to meet the recipient.

“I had a chance to speak with Cesar and I learned more about his specific interests within the field of geology,” Clemens said. “He is a very capable student, and he demonstrated to me his ability to make significant contributions to the science of geology and that is very important to us. Knowing that was very gratifying.”

Clemens, a biologist and research scientist, said he received a similar scholarship when he was an undergraduate.

“It was something that I really appreciated getting for two reasons,” Clemens said. “One, the financial help is certainly a benefit. But it was also nice to know that my ability to contribute was being recognized. It added even more incentive to push even harder to excel in my field. I am confident it will have the same effect on Cesar here at IU Northwest.

“It’s not just a monetary gift, but an award for an exemplary level of academic excellence. For driven students, that is feedback that is going to push them to excel in their field, and it provides inventive to go far and contribute more to their field.”

From his own life experiences, and inspired by others who have provided him with assistance, Garcia says he has a new appreciation for scholarships and the impact they have on students.

“I’d like to contribute to a scholarship for non-traditional students and people with families, just because that is where I am at and it’s hard,” Garcia said. “Every decision I make affects my kids. I would definitely love to support a non-traditional student scholarship, not just for those who have an ‘A’ but for those who can prove they are taking a serious approach. It is a big plus. Every bit helps.”

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