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A Colombian Coffee Farmer’s Sacrifices to Send His Daughter to School and Beyond—to Some of the World’s Top Companies

Photo of a man waering a hat pointing out horses and cows on the other side of a fence

“With privilege comes an obligation to give back.”

Prioritizing Education in the Face of Poverty

Maria Alexandra Velez describes her 93-year-old father as an “oak tree.”

Alonso Velez has spent his entire life in rural Colombia. He never finished elementary school.

At 16, he asked a neighbor for a loan to buy two cows. He eventually sold the animals and used the proceeds to open a small variety store.

In time, he’d earned enough money to own his own coffee farm.

“He was 38 when he married my mom and lived on the farm,” Maria Alexandra says. “My mom did not have a formal education either. She was pulled out of middle school to prioritize his brother’s schooling.”

Maria Alexandra’s family coffee farm near Pereira, Colombia.

Maria Alexandra’s family coffee farm near Pereira, Colombia.

“But they valued education,” she says, “and they told me I had to study.”

It worked.

Today—after a long journey—Maria Alexandra is Pearson’s Vice President of International Government Relations where she works on access to education for Latinos.

Maria Alexandra studied law and graduated in the top 1% of her class. That degree launched a career in the foreign service—an experience she says “changed her life completely”—and set her up for a life helping others learn.

Shot of some trees

Shot of some trees

Taking Flight

“My father sacrificed a lot to send his four kids to a private school,” Maria Alexandra says. “He gave up everything for our education.”

Maria Alexandra and her oldest sister went on to attend Pontifica Universidad Javeriana while living together miles away in Bogota.

“It was unusual for a father to allow his daughters to do something like that,” Maria Alexandra says. “So many people thought young women would go down the wrong path outside the protection of a large family.”

Maria Alexandra studied law and graduated in the top 1% of her class.

That degree launched a career in the foreign service—an experience she says “changed her life completely”—and set her up for a life helping others learn.

She would soon land new and influential jobs at Coca-Cola and the World Bank. Last summer, she was hired by Pearson.

A Long Way from the Coffee Farm

Maria Alexandra traveled extensively as part of Colombia’s diplomatic service. She loved the travel. She discovered a curiosity for the diversity and richness of other cultures. She wanted to understand power relationships between countries.

Following in the footsteps of some colleagues she admired, Maria Alexandra studied international relations and economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“It wouldn’t have happened without a scholarship,” Maria Alexandra says. “My parents had no money for something like that.”

She would soon land new and influential jobs at Coca-Cola and the World Bank.

Last summer, she was hired by Pearson.

Maria Alexandra says it felt like a long way from the coffee farm in Colombia.

“When I got the job,” she recalls, “one of my dear professors back home said ‘Now we’ve lost you for good.'”

A Homegrown Graduate

“I still go back to my hometown in Colombia as much as I can,” Maria Alexandra says.

“Every summer for the last three years, my now 14-year-old daughter teaches English at my old school,” she says. “I don’t want my children to feel entitled, or to forget that the life we lead here in America is anything close to the norm.”

“When we go back to my family’s farm,” she says, “you can’t miss the poverty.”

“I don’t want my children to feel entitled, or to forget that the life we lead here in America is anything close to the norm.”

A Father’s Last Lesson

“With privilege comes an obligation to give back,” Maria Alexandra says.

It’s a lesson she learned from her father.

“When I was in my third year of law school,” Maria Alexandra remembers, “I went home to the farm one weekend.”

“On our way home from Mass, my father and I stopped at a neighbor’s farm,” she says. “And I was miserable because I felt like I had nothing in common with this man.”

When they left, Maria Alexandra’s father had a message for her: “We sent you to the university. I know you will soon become a professional. But a university degree is not what makes you. It’s what kind of person you are.”

“That was a profound lesson,” Maria Alexandra says. “He told me that our neighbor was a good man, and said to give him the respect he deserves.”

“I came to this country with a green card and an education,” Maria Alexandra says. “The only way I could make it out of humble origins inside a Colombian society that’s so class-conscious was with an advanced degree.”

Once Helped, Now Helping Others

Since then, Maria Alexandra has dedicated her life and her profession to the belief that every person has value.

“I came to this country with a green card and an education,” Maria Alexandra says. “The only way I could make it out of humble origins inside a Colombian society that’s so class-conscious was with an advanced degree.”

“It has been a long road,” she says. “and it breaks my heart to see Hispanics or Latinos struggling in the U.S. for any number of reasons.”

Maria Alexandra

Maria Alexandra

Maria Alexandra is concerned about the large number Latinos enroll in college only to drop out later. She and her colleagues are working on ways to address this trend with new learning technologies.

“My father helped bring me to where I am today,” she says. “And I’m now doing my part to help all learners—all who have great potential, values, and a committment to succeed.”

Maria Alexandra spoke about Pearson’s work with the Latino community last week at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual Public Policy Conference. She appeared with other national experts on a panel entitled: “Income and Education Equality – The Skills Gap and How Latinos Fare.”

Maria Alexandra spoke about Pearson’s work with the Latino community last week at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual Public Policy Conference. She appeared with other national experts on a panel entitled: “Income and Education Equality – The Skills Gap and How Latinos Fare.”