Syracuse University Magazine

In the Land of Opportunity


Milena Gonzalez

Born and raised in Cuba, Milena Gonzalez ’13 came to the United States in 2004 as part of a refugee program. Fully expecting to live in Florida, where she and her parents had relatives, she was more than a little surprised when told their resettlement city would be Syracuse. “They showed it to me on a map, and I couldn’t imagine why I was going there,” says Gonzalez, a senior in the Whitman School of Management. “When I landed at the airport, I said to myself, ‘What is this place?’”

In the eight years since her arrival in Central New York, Gonzalez has found it to be a place of opportunity. After graduating from Nottingham High School with a 3.7 grade point average, she was among the first class of Syracuse City School District students to be offered a college scholarship through the Say Yes to Education program, which pays for her tuition and books. “Before Say Yes, I knew I would get some help with college costs, but probably not a full scholarship,” she says. “This was a big surprise and my parents were really glad.”

Her first career choice was criminology, with an eye toward working for the FBI. But a strong aptitude for math led her to choose an accounting and finance major, with a minor in economics. Her long-term goal is to become a certified public accountant. Fluent in English and Spanish, she is learning Portuguese in hopes of landing an internship with Banco Espirito Santo, an international Brazilian bank. “It’s a huge bank, with offices in Miami, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil,” she says. “I know I’m going to be super ready when I leave Whitman to work in the financial world.”

That vision of the future is vastly different from the one she had in Cuba. As a child, Gonzalez was being trained as a dancer in a Cuban performance arts school equivalent to the Juilliard School. “I was dancing since I was 4 years old,” she says. “I was in the Cuban dance school for only seven months because after three months, my mother told me we were coming to America.” Although Gonzalez no longer plans to dance professionally, she continues to perform with the Spanish Action League, a Syracuse organization promoting Latino culture, when time in her busy schedule permits. 

Gonzalez is an only child and her parents have moved to Miami, but she is happy to have remained in Central New York to complete her education—despite missing her homeland’s tropical climate. An avid basketball fan, she cheers on both the Miami Heat and Syracuse Orange. “I’m glad I stayed here and had the chance to go to SU,” she says. “Syracuse University is great—I love the Whitman School, the wonderful professors, and the Orange spirit.” 

Some day, Gonzalez would like to return to Cuba to visit, but has no plans to live there. “I have so much more freedom here,” she says. “Now I have the liberty to be myself.” —Paula Meseroll

Say Yes Scholar

Recipient: Milena Gonzalez ’13

Background: Say Yes to Education Inc. is a national, nonprofit foundation that seeks to improve high school and college graduation rates among urban youth. The Say Yes Syracuse program, in collaboration with the foundation and SU, awards scholarships to qualified graduates of the Syracuse City School District.