It may have taken this alumna 9,490 days (give or take), but “congratulations!” is definitely in order.
While the journey that culminated in Western Michigan University awarding Elena Magdaleno her bachelor’s degree wasn’t free of speed bumps, she never gave up on her dream of becoming a college graduate. And in August 2023, she could officially add Bachelor of Arts in University Studies to her resume.
Elena’s parents came to Michigan from Mexico in 1979, just before she was born. “I grew up as a migrant worker, traveling from Michigan to Texas for seasonal work,” she said. “Eventually we stayed in Michigan as an agriculture labor working family.”
During high school, Elena was nominated for and received the WMU Incentive Award Scholarship through a partnership between Project NOMAD and the University. Project NOMAD is a summer program administered by the Van Buren Intermediate School District that helps children of migrant farmworkers stay on track with their education because they often miss so much of the regular school year.
“I’d always been an honor roll student, and during high school, I volunteered and eventually became employed by this same program,” she said. “I was recognized for my good academics and my artistic talent.”
At Western, Elena majored in art, further developing her artistic skills by teaching students in the NOMAD program during summers. She was also a member of the Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority.
“Even though I didn’t know it, I entered WMU as a very shy, quiet, scared student,” Elena said. “My years at Western gave me the opportunity to develop my confidence, pride in myself and my culture, and my independence.”
One individual who stood out to her during her time at WMU was Hardy Figueroa, who has worked at the University in various roles since 1996. (Hardy works in WMU's University Advancement department now.)
“I met Hardy in 1997 when he worked in the Office of Admissions and was forming supportive relationships with Latino students on campus,” she said. “Hardy was always welcoming with a friendly smile, asking how things were going and saying he was available if we ever ‘needed anything.’”
“I went to WMU’s open house in April 2023, and again, Mr. Hardy Figueroa had that same warm and friendly smile,” Elena continued. “He welcomed me and my son, who is a high school senior and interested in attending Western.”
Crossing the Finish Line
It’s often true that even the best laid plans can go awry. In 2001, Elena moved to Chicago, started a family and briefly returned to school, this time for graphic design. But then she had to put her education on hold.
“My plans didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped,” she said. “I became a single parent but was fortunate enough to have the artistic skills to start my own graphic design company and raise my four children.”
Elena steadily built a successful graphic design business over the course of 16 years. Yet completing her degree never left her mind.
“In 2023, I decided to contact WMU with all of my academic transcripts to see about my options,” she said. “I’d made this decision because I wanted to earn my degree before my daughter, who is a fourth-year undergrad student, completed hers.”
This past August, Elena achieved that goal.
“Since then, my four children have a better understanding of what ‘finish what you start’ means,” she said. “I’ve been saying that for many years. I figured this would be the best example to show them. It took me 26 years, but I finished.”
Finishing what you start also happens to be the advice Elena would give current students, and with the flexibility and availability of inclusive programming through Merze Tate, Western is helping turn those words into reality for more Broncos.
“Thank you for adding Merze Tate College to the WMU campus,” she added. “It’s because of this program and the assistance from my advisor and the admissions office that I was able to finally finish online. I was told this program is designed for students like me, and I’m so grateful. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”
About Merze Tate College
Named in honor of the trailblazing alumna, Dr. Merze Tate, WMU’s Merze Tate College is an alliance of services, units and departments that aim to collaboratively empower every student to reach their highest potential and provide them with ways to seize success, thrive in all dimensions of their wellbeing, and lay the foundation for a prosperous future.
Have an alumni success story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it! Submit your ideas today at WMUAlumni.org/YourStory.