Colombia native Andrea Palacios Calderon transfers leadership and language skills to UMSL

Andrea Palacios Calderon

Andrea Palacios Calderon is studying industrial organizational psychology with a goal of helping companies improve effectiveness and productivity and aid employees developing leadership skills. (Photo by August Jennewein)

After studying English in her native country of Colombia and then moving to the United States  in 2013 to work as an au pair, Andrea Palacios Calderon thought her mastery of the English language would get her hired at companies in need of bilingual employees. 

She soon learned that a requirement for a college degree was the roadblock, not her language skills.

“I went in with the confidence that they have businesses in Latin America and my English is going to help,” Palacios Calderon said. “I applied to several companies because they do business in Colombia. But I kept getting rejected because they said, ‘You don’t have a bachelor’s degree.’ That’s what pushed me to go back to school.”

Palacios Calderon pushed her way to earning a Community College President’s Scholarship. The full tuition scholarship is awarded jointly by the presidents of the participating St. Louis-area community college campuses and the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Recipients are required to have a GPA of between 3.5 and 4.0 and have earned a degree from a two-year college.

Palacios Calderon, 31, received an associate degree from St. Louis Community College–Forest Park with a GPA of 3.9. She is also an UMSL Honors scholar.

Palacios Calderon said she was inspired to pursue academic success by the family she was forced to leave. Her father, a small business owner, and her stay-at-home mother and two younger siblings live in Bogota, Colombia.

“I was pretty much the first of my immediate family to go out of the country,” she said. “My main goal is to make my family feel proud and to use the resources and opportunities this country provides me with to become a better person and professional.

As a new UMSL student this semester, Palacios Calderon is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She considered other programs but chose UMSL’s because of its focus on real-world applications. 

“The psychology program at UMSL is more diverse and has options,” she said. “Other colleges have limited class options, but UMSL has more variety in their classes that would allow me to obtain more skills in the long run.

UMSL also came highly recommended by her husband of four years, Michael Miller, who graduated from UMSL in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in media studies.

“He was like, ‘I really like it, they have really good professors and there are a lot of resources. You can use the Writing Center and Career Services where they can help you find a good job,’” she said, recalling their conversation.

Palacios Calderon said she plans to earn a master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology so she can help companies improve effectiveness and productivity and help employees develop leadership skills.

“That’s the type of psychologist who works in corporations to train people to help them feel empowered so they enjoy going to work,” Palacios Calderon said. “Happy employees make a good company, and people will go the extra mile because they feel they are part of the company.”

Feeling a sense of belonging is important to Palacios Calderon. While she has become part of her husband’s small family since immigrating to the United States, Palacios Calderon said being away from her large family in South America has not been easy.

“I come from a really big family – my mom’s family has 90 people – and that’s one of the things I struggle with the most,” she said. “It’s hard to find a sense of family. It’s really hard being away from your people.”

But Palacios Calderon said she found family in the St. Louis community, especially at UMSL. Although this is her first semester, Palacios Calderon has already connected to a “real sweetheart” named David Wood in the Office of Admissions who gave her his cell phone number so she could keep up with her status. And she appreciates the assistance of her advisor, Kate Votaw, in the Pierre Laclede Honors College who helped her select the best classes for her career path.

“She actually was the one who helped me put my schedule together and explained the classes,” Palacios Calderon said.

At St. Louis Community College, Palacios Calderon said she was welcomed by the advisor of the Phi Theta Kappa honors society, Sandra Knight, who also spoke Spanish. As the group’s executive vice president, she was able to learn leadership from the example of Campus President and Chief Academic Officer Julie Fickas, with whom she worked closely on a student wellbeing college project.

“We created this survey and we found out STLCC students were going through a hard time and it was negatively affecting their wellbeing,” Palacios Calderon said. “So, we wanted to raise awareness with the administration because the college needs to be a partner with them. There are resources, but the students don’t know about resources, so we wanted to be a bridge between students and the college. First for the college to feel more empathy, and also to let students know the school can help them.”

Palacios Calderon’s leadership skills on that project gained the attention of Fickas, who was on the committee to select Palacios Calderon for the Community College President’s Scholarship, which covers tuition and fees for up to 60 credit hours.

“This literally is going to make a huge difference to my financial future,” Palacios Calderon said. “I will get out of school without school debt. That means I can join the workforce and start saving for kids and a house and all that.”

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