Maria Schnabel

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Following grandma’s advice, former refugee child conquers the C-suite

“Don’t let anyone put limitations on what you can achieve”

Walking up to the microphone to address a graduating class inBoca Raton’sFloridaAtlanticUniversitylast week must have felt like a victory lap for Ralph de la Vega.

On Dec. 8., the former child refuge, who overcame huge obstacles on his way to becoming the president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, received an honorary doctorate from his own alma mater, a school he almost did not get to attend.

De la Vega’s obstacle course began 50 years ago in Cuba, when, following the revolution, his parents decided to leave it all behind in search of a better future in the United States.

When the family arrived at theHavanaairport, they were told that only his papers were in order.

“The officer said five words that changed my life forever: ‘Only the boy can go,’” de la Vega recalls.  “My parents had to decide whether to keep us all back until our papers were in order or let me go alone.”

His father made a few calls to friends in Miamiand found a couple who was willing to take care of his son for a few days until they could all be reunited.  He decided to send his son ahead.

Ten-year-old de la Vega said goodbye to his parents and got on the plane, never suspecting he would not see them again for four years.

“I found myself in a new country, with a new family, dealing with a new language, new customs, and no money.  I did not even like the food,” he quips.  He still remembers his first American meal: cold milk and a peanut butter sandwich.

“InCubawe drank our milk hot and with lots of sugar or chocolate,” he explains, adding that he eventually he learned to drink cold milk but that, to this day, he still does not like peanut butter,

Those were tough years.  His foster parents were recent immigrants also.  They shared with him a one-bedroom apartment and the Spam and cheese that the government provided in paint-can-sized containers to Cuban refugees.  He helped them by sweeping factoring floors after school.

Just when things began to get better, de la Vega’s real parents arrived.  They came with nothing, like all other Cuban refugees, so it was back to square one for de la Vega and back to the cans of Spam.

Still struggling with his grades and with English, de la Vega talked with a high school counselor about going to college to become an engineer.

“The counselor looked at my grades and at my family’s situation and said, ‘Son, I think you should become a mechanic instead,’” de la Vega says.   “Now, there is nothing wrong with being a mechanic; it just wasn’t my dream.  My dream was to become an engineer.

“But, you know what? I actually believed him,” he adds.  “I quit high school and enrolled in a vocational school to learn to be a mechanic.”

That went on until de la Vega’s grandmother heard about it.  She had been a teacher back inCubaand knew the value of a good education.

“She told me something I never forgot.  She said, ‘Ralph, don’t let anyone put limitations on what you can achieve,” he recalls.  He followed his grandmother’s advice, quit vocational school, finished high school, went on to college, eventually graduating from FAU with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Last week, de la Vega ended his remarks to FAU’s College of Engineeringand Computer Sciences graduating class with his grandmother’s advice:

“Don’t let anyone put limitations on what you can achieve.  Not even yourself,” he told the graduating class.

It’s a piece of advice he is fond of sharing, particularly with students and especially to Hispanic students, who are registering alarming school drop-out rates.

Despite the demands of running one of the largest wireless companies in the U.S., he finds time to give “the Obstacles Welcome talk”, so named after his a book, Obstacles Welcome: Turn Adversity to Advantage in Business and LifeIn the past two years he has given variations of the talk to dozens of schools and universities including FAU, Northern Illinois University, and Georgia State University; as well as numerous professional associations, and to AT&T employee groups.

Key to his message is the importance of getting a good education.

“Education opens doors,” he says.  “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my education.”

De la Vega is a grateful patriot, as is often the case with immigrants who have been to achieve more in theU.S.than they would have in their own countries.

“It has to be a great country where a 10-year old boy can set foot on its shore, without his parents, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, not even knowing anyone else, and today stands before you as the president & chief executive officer of AT&T Mobility, a company with 87,000 employees, 100-million customers, and $50 billion in annual revenues,” he says, adding “I’m living proof that the American dream is still alive.”

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