During that November class, Roger Sanchez had his cell phone on vibrate. Still, it kept rattling and rattling in his bag until Sanchez, a School of International Service freshman, had to take a look.
“The number was unknown. . . . So, I just put it aside, but it kept calling and calling,” he recalled. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Then, he got one of the most important text messages of his life. It read: “I’m Michelle Obama’s speechwriter. I’d like to interview you over the phone.”
Days later, Sanchez—a first-generation college student—would be honored by the First Lady.
Notes for the Future
When Roger Sanchez first came to Washington, D.C., from the Dominican Republic, he carried notecards with him everywhere. Eleven years old at the time, he didn’t know any English. Everyday he would write down new English words to memorize and practice.
Since then, Sanchez has gone on to graduate from Bell Multicultural High School and now is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at AU. Born to parents who received only up to a third-grade education, his achievements have been a mark of pride.
“To get to this point, being a freshman at AU, this is a big deal for me and my family,” he said.
And it wasn’t just a big deal to the Sanchez family; enter First Lady Michelle Obama.
Mrs. Obama visited Sanchez’s high school alma mater last fall, where she spoke on the importance of education and pursuing college. To illustrate her point, she recognized Sanchez, lauding the hard work that’s set him on the path to a degree at a prestigious university.
For Sanchez, the recognition was more than inspiring.
“Having the First Lady of the United States recognize me and say she was proud of me really gave me a boost of confidence and more motivation to keep doing the work I’m doing,” he said.
Confidence is something Sanchez was happy to receive, as he admits the college transition has been challenging. Still, he’s thankful for the supportive framework at AU that’s helped him succeed—from the faculty themselves to countless on-campus services.
“I’ve struggled,” he shared. “I know how important it is to seek out professors in their office hours. I’ve taken advantage of the Writing Center for my papers. AU has tons of resources like that. You have to be self-motivated.”
He also credits Strive for College, a mentorship program at his high school, for bringing him to AU. The program pairs college students from Columbia Heights with current high school students there, encouraging them to pursue college while serving as role models for how to get there.
“I knew I wanted to go to college,” he said. “Once I became a senior, I knew the road wasn’t going to be easy. My parents, with a third-grade education, they had no idea how to help me apply to schools.”
Once a mentee, he now volunteers as a mentor every week, forging relationships just like the ones that gave him inspiration to study hard. What’s more, he also tutors local third-graders in reading through AU’s DC Reads program.
“I just feel blessed and honored to be able to give back to the community that gave so much to me,” he explained.
Caroline DeLeon coordinates first-generation student programming with AU’s Center for Diversity & Inclusion. She admires the dedication Sanchez brings both to his academics and his efforts to empower others.
“First-generation students often struggle with social integration on campus, but Roger made it clear he wanted to get involved,” she said. “It's important for first-generation students to be able to relate to their peers, and he is the perfect person to help mentor.”
As he works toward his degree in international studies, Sanchez looks to the future. Before becoming a U.S. ambassador, he wants to run a youth development program in Washington like the one that made such a difference in his life.
For now, though, he hopes to develop his high school’s mentorship program in connection to AU, bringing students to campus to help them better envision themselves in college.
And while Sanchez no longer carries notecards with English vocabulary, he’s sure to hold onto another piece of paper—an autographed program from Mrs. Obama’s speech.
Thinking of her encouraging words, he smiled and said, “I’m definitely going to frame that.”