Carmen Palencia

Carmen Palencia graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA from the College of Business Administration with BSBA in management and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Palencia)

Carmen Palencia admits she’s not easily satisfied.

She is always looking for new opportunities and striving for new accomplishments. It’s one of the main reasons Palencia left her native Colombia for the United States eight years ago.

“Carmen always wants more,” she said matter-of-factly recently.

This weekend was a testament to that drive and determination. Palencia, who knew very little English when she first arrived in St. Louis and spent years taking ESL classes to prepare herself to start college, graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Business Administration with BSBA in management and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College.

“I’m super happy, and I feel so accomplished,” Palencia said. “I cannot believe, thinking about when I started ESL classes, that I’m going to have my bachelor’s degree. I’m the first person in my family to move to the United States and get that type of degree, so I feel very proud. My family also is overjoyed. It means so much to me.”

True to form, she’s already working on her next goals. Palencia has an internship as a financial analyst with The Boeing Company through May 2022 and will begin work on her MBA in January at UMSL.

“She’s just worked very hard, and she’s very talented,” said Edward Munn Sanchez, dean of the Honors College, who has been one of Palencia’s mentors during her time at UMSL. “You combine that and with her personality and her willingness to actually go get help – she is the classic case of someone who is smart enough to go get help and take advantage of the opportunities that are available. That tells you why she’s going to be successful.”

Palencia grew up in San Pedro Sucre, in the northern part of Colombia, less than 60 miles from the Caribbean Sea. It was a small enough town that she had to go elsewhere to attend university, eventually earning a degree in business, but she already had her sights set farther away.

“I knew education in the United States was great, so I said, ‘I want to study there,’” she said.

Palencia was 25 when she made the move in 2012, first landing in Michigan and later settling near her aunt and uncle in St. Louis. The degree she earned in Colombia was of little benefit when it came to finding a job, so she knew right away she’d have to get a degree in the United States.

But first she had to break down the language barrier. She enrolled in ESL classes at St. Louis Community College–Meramec to practice speaking and learn to read and write in English.

Palencia went on to earn an associate degree with strong enough grades to put her in contention for significant scholarships. She applied to several universities around the region.

UMSL was the only one with the Community College President’s Scholarship, covering the full cost of her tuition and fees for two years and giving her a chance to earn her degree debt free. Palencia was also impressed by the College of Business Administration’s dual accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, so her college decision was easy.

Palencia received additional financial assistance from the Honors College after enrolling at UMSL and found it an ideal place to learn and grow while pursuing her degree in management.

“The soft skills that I learned through the Honors College were valuable,” Palencia said. “The classroom is only 15 to 17 people, so you get to communicate, talk, and if you are shy, at the end of the class, you won’t be shy because you have to talk even if you don’t want to. Those things helped me to be better.”

Lisa Fikki, the internship coordinator in the College of Business Administration, also pointed Palencia toward mentorship opportunities, recommending she apply to be part of the St. Louis Regional Business Council Mentor Network, which pairs students from the 14 area universities with an RBC 100 executive, and the Boeing Mentor Program, which matches UMSL students with alumni who are managers at the company for a yearlong program.

Palencia also found mentors on campus, including Fikki herself, for whom she has worked as a Next Step intern since last January, and Munn Sanchez.

“We’re both native Spanish speakers, so it was really easy to connect,” he said.

Fikki and Munn Sanchez both encouraged her to apply for the internship at Boeing last spring despite it being in finance and outside her particular area of study. They helped her refine her resume, and Munn Sanchez also worked with her on her interview skills.

“She’s really well-spoken in Spanish, so it was just a matter of getting those abilities translated into English and building her confidence,” Munn Sanchez said. “She was worried about whether her English would show well, so we did a bunch of mock interviews. I went through questions, and then we met and talked about careers.”

Palencia was confident and wound up landing the internship, starting work last summer.

Acclimating to a new job in a pandemic has presented some challenges. Palencia is a natural extrovert and relishes working around people in an office setting, but she’s been working remotely like the rest of her colleagues since her internship began and has had to figure out ways to learn and bring value to her team.

Fortunately, Palencia’s been willing to ask questions and get the help she needs as she continues to grow in the role.

She is expecting to rotate to another position in the early part of the new year and recently had the internship extended into 2022, giving her a sense of security as she begins work on her MBA. She’s contemplating choosing finance as her emphasis area.

Palencia has worked in Fikki’s office and served as president of UMSL’s Finance Club during her tenure as an undergraduate. She’s also been helping Munn Sanchez and others in the Honors College to develop a recruitment video aimed as Spanish-speaking students.

“Carmen is an amazing contributor to the UMSL brand and has a very bright future,” Fikki said. “She is an truly an amazing young woman.”

Palencia plans to stay involved after graduation and would like to help mentor other students. She believes they might learn from her and the way she’s seized opportunities.

“Some people are afraid to start from something, but if you don’t start, you’re never going to get where you want to be,” Palencia said. “It took me years to be where I am, but I’m here, and I’m so excited. Everything was worth it.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik