During a Christmas break visit to his mother's new home in New Mexico, native Chicagoan Fabian Alonzo scaled a mountain for the first time.
"It was a big one, too," Alonzo said about the experience with friends and family in the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque.
"I was halfway up and breathing heavy – covered from head to toe in sweat, just drenched – and I'm like, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it!' So, there's a real rush you feel getting to the top and staring down."
Alonzo got to relish another breathtaking view on Saturday afternoon when he ascended the stage at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline as a first-generation college graduate reaching important new heights.
The Fighting Bees Track and Field athlete – and former football player – earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Psychology. Alonzo also graduated with a double minor in Museum Studies and Criminal Justice, and will enroll in SAU's Master of Science in Criminal Justice program this fall.
"My freshman year, I was just worried about passing each class and surviving the semester," Alonzo said. "Graduation? That was a coin toss. I was not a good student when I got here. I was shy and quiet and a little lost every day. But as the years went by, I saw myself blossom into someone who has big plans for the future."
Alonzo said his college experience has expanded his worldview through participation in athletics and various organizations, such as the Museum Enthusiasts Club and the Engineering Club, as well as Latinos Unidos, the latter of which he served as vice president this past year.
"I didn't imagine doing all this," said Alonzo, who, as a work-study employee, also helps fellow students in the Accessibility Resource Center.
"Originally, I was just an athlete trying to get all of my homework done. My grades and playing time were my priority. But my academic advisor - and one of my instructors, Terri Switzer - really opened my eyes to all the cool things you can do on campus.
"Now, sometimes I'm like, 'Man, I've got a lot on my plate!' But I wanted to leave a legacy for the freshmen and sophomores who might be feeling like me coming in here, that feeling of, keep your head down and please just let me get my degree."
Alonzo said the clubs not only helped make him a better, more organized student but improved his social skills and put him in contact with more people from diverse backgrounds.
"That's how I picked up an extra major in art history and why I am going to grad school, because of all the great people I have met," Alonzo said.
"Graduation? That was a coin toss. I was not a good student when I got here. I was shy and quiet and a little lost every day. But as the years went by, I saw myself blossom into someone who has big plans for the future."
With his career options expanded from law enforcement that now include rehabilitation and mentoring to art, Alonzo received a wide variety of paid internships this summer. He finally settled on juvenile rehabilitation at New Mexico's La Plazita Institute, which will also allow him to spend more time with his mother and younger brother.
"It's been an incredible journey," Alonzo said. "I'm very grateful to all the great people who have helped me along the way, from my advisors and instructors to my classmates who kept me going. Ambrose is such a caring atmosphere.
"I also had my parents pushing me through the hard times when I thought, 'I can't do this.' The message from all of those people was, 'You already made it this far, so you might as well finish.' Now, it's 'look what you've done!'"