In 1962, when Zenia Camejo was 11 years old, she defected from Cuba with her two sisters and 14,000 other unaccompanied minors. They were part of a mass exodus fleeing the distressed island just months before the missile crisis began and President Kennedy closed the country off from the United States for over half a century.
Camejo didn’t speak a word of English as she stepped off the plane and onto a military base in Florida. She and and her sisters were soon whisked off to Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado, where she began to forge a new life.
“It built in me a strength that maybe I wouldn’t have had before, and I try to pass that on to my children,” Camejo said, recalling her time at the orphanage.
Through grit and determination, Camejo finished high school, got married, had a family, and opened up a pharmaceutical delivery company with her husband. The couple worked tirelessly to make sure that their children would rise to a higher level of education.
When their oldest son, Arthur Valdez, was 5 years old he would join them on deliveries, running packages into nursing homes and up to customers’ doors. Camejo and her husband both went on to careers at UPS and the conversation at dinner would often shift to their work. Valdez was absorbed by stories of complex distribution hang-ups, problematic conveyor belt systems, and issues on the delivery trucks that day.
“I just grew up with it in my blood,” he said. “To see the movement of goods, the engagement of people, the development of the business, the innovation.”
A powerful place to learn
Inspired by how his parents approached their jobs, Valdez set out to find a way to pair their committed work ethic with a strong education that would empower him to pursue a career of his own. He was drawn to CSU’s College of Business by its small-town feel and tight-knit community and decided to apply.
Although it was a challenge sorting through unfamiliar financial aid paperwork and enrollment information with his mother, Valdez was accepted to the university, receiving Pell Grants and scholarships to help fund his schooling. He began studying production operations management, now known as supply chain management, in 1989.
“The decision for me to be in an operations education was clear. What that truly meant and what I was going to study, I really didn’t know,” said Valdez, who struggled at first to get a solid footing in the school.
Since Valdez was a student, the College of Business has established its mentoring program to smooth the transition to academic life for first-year students unsure of what to expect coming to CSU. The College has also created a career center that specifically serves business students, giving graduates an edge entering professional life and equipping them with a 90 percent job placement rate after 3 months of leaving CSU.
The path to employment
“I wasn’t always prepared, I’ll be honest. I probably blew the first three or four interviews I had because I wasn’t sure what the engagement was like,” Valdez said.
But as he developed relationships with his fellow students and faculty in the College of Business, more opportunities began to open up.
“I became more and more confident in who I was and that CSU was a safe place to develop as a young student and a young business person.”
During his senior year, a representative from Walmart was on campus recruiting students. After Valdez spoke with him he was invited to a second interview at their distribution center in Loveland.
Walking in and seeing the bustling activity, with fast moving conveyor lines speeding boxes of products toward their destination, he knew it was an environment he wanted to be in.
“And through the years that’s what my career has been,” said Valdez, whose professional life has taken him across the U.S. and Europe and into Mexico working for big box retail stores. In 1999 he was hired by Amazon to manage a Kansas fulfillment center and moved up the company’s ranks to Vice President of Operations International Expansion.
“I just knew I wanted to be part of something early on,” Valdez said. “And Amazon being an operations company, first and foremost, that balances technology with the customer experience, it was just a great fit.”
In 2016, Valdez was hired by Target to help address systemic problems in their supply chain and recalled his time at the College of Business as being fundamental in setting the stage for success.
“All those business decisions that you learn are based off of what you are learning now in school,” Valdez said. “What you’re seeing is real world.”
Camejo vividly remembers her son’s graduation, sitting with her sisters and his grandparents, watching as he flipped his cap around to reverse the “WOW” spelled out on top to read “MOM.”
“He made a whole bunch of us very, very proud,” Camejo said.
Nearly 25 years later Camejo is still proud, having watched her son grow in his career accomplishments and return to CSU to mentor students.
Helping students succeed
In February, Valdez welcomed first generation College of Business students to a dinner celebrating their achievements. He encouraged them to take their responsibilities to their educations, as well as their families, seriously, but to not be afraid of failing.
“If you’re ambitious and you want to move up the ladder within an organization, be humble with your own development,” Valdez said. “I failed. I failed a lot of times, but what it taught me helped me understand how to solve that problem differently and move forward.”
Driven by the desire to share his success and help the students coming after him, Valdez and his family have established a scholarship for other first generation students, who make up 20 percent of the College of Business’ undergraduate class.
“I went through some tough lessons myself along the way, and I want to make it easier,” Valdez said. “What you have to do is look into yourself, and say, ‘OK, I now have this, I have these learnings, how do I now give back?’”
College of Business Mentoring Program
Since Valdez graduated from CSU, the College of Business Mentoring Program has begun offering first-year students the opportunity to have one-on-one guidance from upperclassmen in the business program. Current students provide help with everything from study strategies to class registration, campus resources and good restaurants.
Incoming students who enter the mentoring program earn higher GPAs and are less likely to leave the college before finishing their degree than their counterparts who don’t get involved.
Quickly establishing a strong support network gives many students the foundation they need to excel academically and socially, developing skills that will be integral throughout their careers.