For many young people living in Central America dreaming of pursuing higher education, obtaining the financial means to attend to an American university can prove more challenging than gaining admittance to a school. But Alvaro Salas grad, a native of Costa Rica and a first-year student in the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, is paying for his education by employing the power of modern technology.
Using Rally.org — a website that people can use to fundraise — Salas raised $100,000 this spring to help finance his education and bring his wife and daughter to Ithaca.
Salas first learned about Rally.org when he met the website’s creator at a summit for social activists in Panama.
“It’s the best platform you have right now for raising capital on social projects, and the platform is easy to use,” Salas said.
Although Salas received a substantial fellowship to attend Cornell, he still lacked the funds necessary to transport his family from Costa Rica to Ithaca and afford the cost of living in Ithaca for the next few years. To close this gap, Salas not only fundraised on Rally.org but also knocked on the doors of the wealthiest individuals in Costa Rica, organized a rock concert with five popular bands in Costa Rica and brought 150 potential donors to a dinner in which he delivered a presentation outlining his objectives.
Salas said the pressing issues faced by Costa Ricans, in addition to his own experiences growing up under hardship, led him to realize from a young age that he wanted to give back to youth in Central America.
“In Latin America, there is limited access to education, even if you’re really smart,” Salas said. “There are all these kids that are brilliant that can’t achieve their goals. I want to fight [to end] this.”
Salas said he hopes to inspire youth who find themselves in a similar position to his own.
“The main message I was trying to sell is that everyone deserves an opportunity. If you’re a fighter [and] you constantly have a drive and a genuine motive to achieve something, you deserve an opportunity,” Salas said.
Friends said that Salas exemplifies the values of persistence and hard work.
“He’s an out-of-the-box thinker,” Melania Guerra grad said. “He clearly understands and knows how to harvest the power of social media.”
Eithel Manrique grad, one of Salas’ peers, echoed Guerra’s sentiments.
“Alvaro has the courage to take the lead for change in his country,” Manrique said.
Although Salas is still about $10,000 short of his fundraising goal, he hopes to close the gap within the next two years. He currently has two jobs and hopes to receive more donations through Rally.org.
“The process was daunting, hectic, very difficult … raising money to bring your family [to Ithaca] and pay tuition and living expenses is a difficult experience,” Salas said. “At the end of the day, it was worth it. You need your beloved ones close.”
Salas has come a long way from home to attend school in Ithaca. He said he grew up in a lower-to-middle class neighborhood in San Jose, Costa Rica, where, with his single mother working multiple jobs to support him, he was raised by both his grandmothers. Though Salas said he struggled to stay in school at times, he graduated as the valedictorian of his high school, went on to law school and then earned his MBA from INCAE Business School.
Although Salas was able to pursue an education, others have not been as fortunate, he said — pointing to the rising achievement gap in Costa Rica. The nation, he said, struggles with problems such as corruption in the government, a poor public education system and high dropout rates from school.
“I want to create opportunities for teenagers, for kids like me … to use your education ... to create more opportunity,” he said.
Salas’ dedication to both his own education and helping others has already caught the eye of Tom O’Toole, the executive director of CIPA, who said Salas is an “effective change-maker” and a “catalytic leader.”
“Like many of our MPA Fellows, Alvaro is resourceful, motivated and resilient,” O’Toole said. “These are the traits that we look for in MPA Fellows.”
Salas said he hopes his view on leadership will better enable him to make changes in his homeland.
“There is a misconception about the word leadership,” Salas said. “People think that there must be a person who goes in the front. No — you must be in the back. I picture the people in the front and you’re serving them, supporting them [and] helping them. I think the leader should serve the people.”
Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to The Sun, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount Alvaro still needs to raise to attend Cornell. It is $10,000, not $70,000.