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Thursday, March 28, 2019 - 12:45pm
Dobbs Ferry Campus

For Engelberg “Iggy” Fernandez-Aguilar ’20, the path to Mercy College began way back in fifth grade.

“When I was growing up, there was a lot of gang violence in Newburgh, so my mom didn’t want me to go to public school,” Fernandez-Aguilar explained. Indeed, his hometown’s violent crime rate is one of the highest in the nation across communities of all sizes. With his family’s support, he applied to San Miguel Academy of Newburgh — a tuition-free, faith-based, independent middle school for boys — and began attending the school in fifth grade.

As the school’s website states, San Miguel Academy aims to “break the cycle of poverty through education,” utilizing elements such as small class sizes, a project-based curriculum, extended school days and an extended school year. “It’s an all-boys school, which made it special,” Fernandez-Aguilar described. “And the learning is hands-on, which is another reason San Miguel is special. They took us to lots of places and gave us lots of opportunities.”

Fernandez-Aguilar credits his teachers at San Miguel for pushing and motivating him: “They never sugarcoated anything. They explained that since we’re minorities, we always have to try harder. That inspired me to work hard. I don’t think I’d be a good worker if it weren’t for my teachers at San Miguel. I was at school until 5 or 6 p.m. every day. Though I wasn’t fond of it then, all that work was good for us.” Indeed, his hard work paid off with a scholarship to Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic high school in Poughkeepsie.

When it was time to apply to college, he was particularly attracted to Mercy College’s prime location near New York City “where all the jobs and opportunities are,” he explained. A bonus is that San Miguel and Mercy maintain a close relationship. As one of seven postsecondary institutions that participate in San Miguel’s Graduate Support Program, Mercy College demonstrates clear interest in attracting San Miguel alumni.

After arriving at Mercy, Fernandez-Aguilar spent his first two years trying to find his place. As his professors encouraged him to do more, he began to put more effort into his studies starting in junior year. A Legal Studies major, he particularly appreciates Mercy’s hands-on approach to learning: “I had a class where we’d go sit in courtrooms. That was the coolest thing. Every lawyer has a different way of handling themselves in the courtroom, and not a lot of people get to experience that. A lot of my professors are practicing lawyers, so they also bring their real work to us sometimes. Adjunct Professor Larry Arias brought us some work from a case in which someone was scammed, and that was so interesting. Assistant Professor Donna Bookin is always updating us on jobs and internships, and she’s so thorough in her teaching that I'm always learning something. All of my professors are very intelligent, good people. They really care.”

As he gained skills and a sense of direction, Fernandez-Aguilar won a position as a paralegal in a law firm: “It’s a real job with full-time hours, and it’s definitely tough to balance school with work. I see the same things at work that I learned at Mercy, so what we’re learning is accurate. I've got coursework I can refer back to because they teach us well at Mercy.” Fernandez-Aguilar is still finalizing his post-graduation plans. He is considering either heading directly to law school or investing in real estate.

As Fernandez-Aguilar reflected on his accomplishments, he said, “I know that lots of people worked hard over the years to help me be successful. And I just think I got so lucky. I mean, I'm 20 years old and still in college, so I really shouldn't be working at a law firm yet.”

When pressed, he admitted with a laugh that hard work might have had something to do with it too.