When 18-year-old Estevan Puerta starts his freshman year at Stonehill College this fall, he expects to be challenged by the classes and meet interesting people, but he doesn’t expect to have a hard time adjusting to the responsibilities of living away from home.
“I’ve had a taste -- a small nibble -- of what it’s like to be an adult ,” said Puerta, who for the past four years has worked between 25 and 32 hours a week while maintaining his grades and living on his own.
“That’s taught me so much. I don’t think any other student has had the opportunity to live on their own,” the graduating Fenway High School student said in a recent phone interview. “Thanks to all that, I’m way ahead of all my peers. I know what’s going to come up in life.”
Although Puerta’s parents have a home in East Boston, his father’s chronic pain disorder forces them to warmer climates because Boston’s cold winters make his pain worse, Puerta explained. His mother and father, who is partially paralyzed, stay in Colombia for up to five months out of the year.
Puerta’s two older sisters live in the Greater Boston area and help him when their parents are away, but one lives an hour away and the other runs a restaurant in Methuen. With both working long hours, Puerta said he chose to stay at his family’s home and learn to make it on his own.
“YouTube taught me a lot of stuff,” Puerta said with a laugh as he recalled learning how to cook, do laundry, and maintain the house.
Besides figuring out how to handle his domestic responsibilities, Puerta started working at various jobs his freshman year, well before most of his friends and classmates had their first jobs.
He also played soccer for two years, only stopping when the program ended. Otherwise he’d still be playing, he said.
All this eventually took its toll. Puerta said he started noticing his health was suffering and he was falling asleep in classes. Although he was still earning good grades, he knew he had to cut back so he cut his work hours down to 25 per week.
“It’s been tough, but wow, these four years...wow, these four years went by so fast,” said Puerta who currently works at Paradise Bakery & Cafe in the Prudential Center and helps out at his sister’s restaurant.
Many other students might not see living on their own while balancing school and work as an “opportunity,” as Puerta called it, but he said he tries to have mature and optimistic view of the world.
“I know that I’m working really hard and I know it’s going to pay off. Everyday I wake up and learn something new,” said Puerta, pointing to school, work, and just observing city life as learning opportunities.
While Puerta has learned how to take care of himself, he’s quick to point to the support he’s received from his family, co-workers, and teachers.
“You go through a tough situation, but different places are always going to try to make you feel better,” said Puerta, citing his boss who would let him go home early if he had a big test to study for and his teachers who would offer extensions if he was having trouble finishing an assignment on time.
He also recalls his father’s hard work that allowed the family to move from an apartment near Massachusetts and Huntington avenues to their house in Orient Heights more than ten years ago.
And when Puerta walks across the stage to receive his diploma Friday afternoon, his entire family--including his grandmother who flew in from Colombia just for the ceremony--will be cheering him on.
“I’m the first one in my family to go to college the right way, straight out of high school,” said Puerta, who hopes to set an example for his nieces, and push them to exceed his goals and accomplishments.
“My mom always says I’m the captain of the family.”
And with the start of summer, Puerta has no plans to slow down.
He hopes to get a job at Boston Sports Club to save money for colllege and has been busy chatting with his new classmates on one of Stonehill’s Facebook pages.
He’s still not sure what he’d like to study, but is interested in architecture and is excited to take business and psychology classes.
“I just want to explore some things,” he said.
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