Don’t Put Your Story in Someone Else’s Hands

Garret Hinojosa

In January of 2014, Garret Hinojosa was excited to be stepping onto the UC Main Campus. The first of his siblings to attend college, he came from an inner city neighborhood in Columbus from a meager background. He said he wasn’t sure what to do with his life until Lincoln, his best friend, came back from his first year in the IT program at University of Cincinnati. He told Garret about the co-op program, his experience at UC, and Garret decided he wanted in.

He applied, and though he had been turned down for main campus because of his grades, he didn’t let that stop him. He applied to the UC Clermont pre-engineering program and was accepted. Now, he was on main campus, ready to begin classes the next day … until he learned that transportation between UC campuses didn’t exist.

“I felt my world just closing in, you know? I didn’t have a car or a way to get to Clermont and I was stuck on main campus in the dorm. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere,” says Garret. He frantically began trying to find housing close to the branch and calling to resolve this situation. “I didn’t have a lot of money. Buddies of mine said I could live with them ‘till I got on my feet. I tried to call the Housing Department and explain my situation, but I was stuck in the dorm contract. On top of that, I had thought that the financial aid amount I received was per semester, but it was per year. I found out that I still owed several thousand dollars in tuition at the same time. I felt things just getting smaller and smaller,” Garret says.

Garret didn’t give up. He began systematically calling UC staff/administration trying to get help. He called the Engineering Department and spoke with a representative, who told him that he didn’t have the pre-requisites for admission to the Engineering program at Main Campus. They suggested that he call the Center for Exploratory Studies. Garret found out the Center was having open Advising hours and he immediately headed over to French Hall.  Garret signed up and waited for his name to be called.  As it so happens, another student was also named Garret and when that student finished his advising time, Garret Hinojosa’s name was marked as helped. “I mean, Garret is an unusual name, you know.  What are the chances that two Garrets would be in the same place at the same time?”

After several hours, the Center was ready to close for the day when the staff noticed Garret still waiting patiently for help. When they realized what had happened and Garret explained his situation, they ushered him directly into the Assistant Academic Director’s office for help.  “Sometimes things happen for a reason, like you were destined to be in the right place at the right time,” he says.

Stephen Sovilla listened to Garret’s story and when Garret said he didn’t have a place at UC, Mr. Sovilla said, “You do now.” They reviewed the majors available to him on campus and Garret decided on Information Technology. He gave Garret Kim Fulbright’s name, the University ombudsmen. She facilitated Garret’s move out of the dorms. “I am eternally grateful to Stephen Sovilla,” Garret says. “It’s so important to take the time with other people. Extend the same kindness that Stephen Sovilla gave to me, to other people. Listen and help when you can. It’s a powerful takeaway.”

Garret enrolled in classes on UC main campus. He moved in with his friends to get on his feet his freshman year, and he never lost contact with Stephen Sovilla. “I email him every year. I just want him to know the effect he had on my life,” says Garret. Things were starting to fall in to place for him. 

“I still owed tuition. I needed a job. I had already looked at UC and decided on a few places to apply before I left home,” he says. He visited one of his choices, T-Mobile, and decided this is where he wanted to work. There was only one problem. They didn’t have any open positions. “I just went in, you know? Every time I passed by, once a week on my way to class, just to go in and talk to people,” says Garret. The manager became familiar with Garret and then offered him a job. 

“I could have just kept working at T-Mobile, making a good salary, taking classes, and worked there the rest of my life. But I told myself not to become complacent.  My Dad always tells me to keep moving forward.  So, I opened A&O,” he says.   

Garret’s company, Alpha & Omega Networking, focused on fulfilling local customer’s network needs. At the same time, he started chatting with Michele Hobbs, a T-Mobile customer, every time she visited. She had just opened up a business of her own, Pet Wants, a company that designs and delivers fresh, healthy pet food. She asked Garret to help her set up the company network and then invited him to join her business. After some long thought, Garret left T-Mobile and became a Pet Wants employee. “Sometimes you have to take risks, you know?” 

Garret is now a junior in the Information Technology Program with plans to graduate in summer, 2017. He still works with Michele and Pet Wants. “Things could not be better. I am progressing toward my graduation with such confidence,” says Garret. “I would defy someone to find a better staff and better establishment. To me, the power of what UC does is that it’s a large public college, but the personal attention of the faculty and organization here feel like a smaller university. When a student attends UC for the first time, their world changes. Life very quickly seems too large, but UC does many things to ensure life stays small.”

The IT program at UC emphasizes relationships and real world experiences. UC students complete 5 semesters of cooperative education during the course of their education. Garret sees his Cooperative Education Advisor, Erik Alanson, on a regular basis.

“Garret has a really unique entrepreneurial mindset.  He is really determined and persistent. The UC Co-op Program takes you as far as you want to go. It gives you exposure to the business world and teaches you how to broaden your academic skills in a meaningful way that impacts the real world,” says Erik. “Garret has worked hard to further his skillset professionally and employers recognize that. It opens a lot of doors.”

Garret agrees, “The Co-op Program is second to none in terms of support. The staff and organization go the extra mile to provide opportunities for their students. I mean, the fact that this story is even being written, that is a direct product of my meeting with my co-op advisor, Erik. That’s where the beauty of the program is; to provide opportunities to students that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

Garret says UC feels like home. “I see myself staying with Pet Wants for the rest of my career. My responsibility with this company is to use the skills I’ve developed at UC to transcend all initial expectations Michele had for it when she opened. My legacy will be to continue the vision Michele Hobs has and to lead the company someday,” says Garret. “I can lead with confidence because of the doors UC has opened for me. The experiences I’ve had here, the people I’ve met, are second to none.” 

Erik believes in Garret. “The relationships and connections that develop for the student can really help them. Garret has come really far with developing a solid business and technical sense through his coops,” says Erik. “It’s such a benefit for our students, and also for the community. It’s a talent pool for businesses – to help mold and teach talent – an affordable option that is low risk. UC has such a strong standing in the community and deep connections with local businesses. It allows students to pursue their interests with flexibility and support – to explore their options and follow the path they choose.”

“My life changed because I was given opportunities here at UC and I want my story to be an inspiration for others,” Garret says. “If I had any advice for those starting out, it would be – don’t put your story in someone else’s hands. Who better to take control of your life than yourself?  Whatever you do, keep moving forward. UC is a great place to do that.”

The University of Cincinnati’s Co-op Program was founded in 1906. After more than a hundred years, it still has the same goal – enhancing student education through practical experience. “Having this co-op experience is invaluable for the student and the business. It develops relationships and makes real world contacts. When a student graduates, they are prepared to use the skills they’ve developed in the real world. When businesses hire them, they have a waiting talent pool that has already proven their skillset upon graduation,” says Erik.

 It is the oldest co-op program in the world and the largest cooperative education program at a public university in the United States.  It continues to be an integral part of the UC education and was ranked 4th in the United States by US News & World Report (2012).