With Family as Inspiration, Maria Roncal ’15 Uses Hollins Education to Empower Herself, Others

roncalGrowing up in Peru, Maria Roncal ’15 was taught a valuable lesson by her family: personal empowerment would come only if she took responsibility for getting the education she always wanted.

That advice sustained Roncal after she moved to Northern Virginia twenty years ago as a stay-at-home mom with three young children. To support them, she subsequently had to enter the workforce, but the higher education that eluded her in Peru gradually became a reality in this country when she began enrolling in courses at a local community college.

Today, Roncal is thriving at Hollins University with a goal after graduation of becoming a nurse. The hard work and commitment she has displayed as a double-major in biology and Spanish were recognized recently by the Roanoke Valley Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which awarded her a $1,500 Non-traditional Scholarship.

“I have been encouraged and guided by people whose unselfishness has supported and inspired me,” Roncal wrote in her scholarship application essay. “I want to give of myself as others have given to my family and me.”

Roncal’s journey to Hollins began as she juggled community college classes with her job. “It was hard and I really wanted to do it [go to school] full-time,” she recalled. Through an Internet search, her son-in-law discovered Hollins’ Horizon program, which is dedicated to serving adult women who are entering a four-year college for the first time, or returning after an interruption in their education. “I was amazed,” she said. “The place looked so beautiful on the website and I told my son-in-law I’d like to go visit.”

She arranged a meeting with Celia McCormick, then-director of Horizon, and “fell in love with the campus. Just talking with Celia made me believe I could do it.”

Nevertheless, when she enrolled at Hollins in the spring of 2012, Roncal knew it would be a difficult step for her. Her children, now adults, all resided in the Washington, D.C., area, and she had no friends or relatives in Roanoke. She credits her son-in-law for helping her find the courage to give Hollins a chance. “I was really scared, but my son-in-law – he’s my angel.” Then and now, she said, “he motivates me.”

Other than forgetting to bring a pencil with her on the first day of her first mathematics class (“My professor said, ‘No problem,’ and gave me two or three.”), Roncal adjusted well to life at Hollins. A typical day begins at 8 a.m. and often doesn’t end until ten at night, but she enjoys campus life. She and her fellow Horizon students “have a great bond. They became my family.” Roncal works as a student assistant in the Horizon office and is also active with Hollins’ Office of Cultural and Community Engagement, where occasionally she gets to immerse herself  in one of her favorite activities, cooking, when she prepares meals for students.

Roncal believes her biology and Spanish majors complement one another. She told the AAUW, “I want to be able to help sick people get better, taking care of an individual’s physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, social and spiritual needs. Also, I want to be able to educate people on how to prevent illnesses. With my degree in Spanish and as a health care professional, I will be able to reach out to the Hispanic community while acknowledging and respecting their differences.

“I aspire to be a role model for minorities and especially women. I enjoy talking with women about my own experiences and the struggles I have had to overcome to make a living.”

Roncal has just four more classes to complete for her biology degree. She will take one of those courses at Virginia Western Community College this summer and the remaining three at Hollins in the spring of 2015. This fall, she will finish her Spanish major while studying abroad in Seville, Spain – another dream come true for her.

While Roncal is justifiably delighted with her accomplishments as a Hollins student, her greatest pride is reserved for her three children, who have embraced her passion for education. Just twelve, eight, and three years old, respectively, when they arrived in the United States, they all went on to attend Vanderbilt University on full scholarships. The oldest, a daughter, is an electrical engineer who is returning to school to become a physician. Her son, the middle child, is also an electrical engineer who is now completing his M.B.A. The youngest, a second daughter, majored in neuroscience in college and has begun a master’s program in public health.

Roncal is also extremely grateful to her mother, sister, and four brothers. “They are always watching after my needs,” she said, citing their financial support in particular.

“Empowering people through education is a big task that will help make a better world and eradicate injustice,” Roncal stated in her AAUW scholarship application. “The more educated people become, the less likely they are to feel like they are facing discrimination and prejudice. Being able to get well-paying jobs while doing something they love gives people a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in their lives.”