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From a southwest Michigan migrant community to a career recruiting for MSU

Growing up, Leonel Ornelas-Martinez didn’t think much about going to college. His family worked the land of southwest Michigan, usually helping on blueberry farms. Leonel, who goes by “Leo,” said his parents weren’t against him attending college, it was just that no one from his family had ever attended past high school.

“My parents were huge advocates of education,” Leo said. “I could never miss a day of school.”

His thinking about college changed when his older sister was accepted to MSU. She was a couple years ahead of Leo, and she gave him a picture of what his future could be.

“She gave me hope I could be admitted,” Leo said. He applied, and was accepted as well.

Leo’s freshman financial aid package included the Spartan Advantage scholarship, an award created to help those just like him: Michigan’s neediest students who could not otherwise dream of attending MSU.

Leo and his sister became a team, supporting one another’s college journey.

“The expectation we instilled in one another was graduation,” Leo said. “Finish, get our degree.”

First-generation college students like Leo face roadblocks that students from families where college is a given don’t see. For these students, finances are only one barrier to overcome.

“Having that financial support, it helps significantly,” Leo said. “You take down another hurdle many students face when going to college.”

Leo said he was relieved his parents didn’t need to worry about him finishing college.

“They had their own financial situation they had to deal with,” Leo said. “I couldn’t ask my parents for 500, 600 bucks a month for rent. I would have had to work even more hours which would take away from my studies.”

Leo graduated with a Criminal Justice degree. He came back to MSU and received a master’s degree in Higher Adult Lifelong Education. He currently works for MSU as the Recruitment Coordinator for the College Assistance Migrant Program.

The support SPAD provides, it does change a lot of lives,” Leonel said. “Not having that extra financial pressure sometimes determines if a student graduates or not.”

Leo said he’d like to see MSU promote Spartan Advantage up front, instead of waiting for the financial aid process to complete to let students know they’re eligible. He thinks knowing early could help students make important decisions.