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An unexpected path

Three years after applying for C-STEP as a Guilford Community College student, Aguilera is now just a few days away from becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.

Gerson standing outside at Kenan Stadium.

Gerson Aguilera never expected to be an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He had planned to attend a four-year university closer to his home in Thomasville, North Carolina, but Carolina’s C-STEP program lured him to Chapel Hill.

C-STEP is a UNC-Chapel Hill program that prepares talented high school and community college students to transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill after they earn an associate degree and meet other requirements.

Three years after applying for C-STEP as a Guilford Community College student, Aguilera is now just a few days away from becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He has earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences.

With a position as a software engineer at Wells Fargo already lined up, Sunday’s Winter Commencement will set Aguilera off into a career that he didn’t think was possible five years ago, even though he had been priming himself for the field for years.

“I grew up with computers. In high school, I built a computer myself,” Aguilera said. “I bought the parts and then built the computer to play games with my friends. I’ve always been passionate about technology and working with computers, but I didn’t actually know what computer science was until after high school. I didn’t even know what programming was.”

He began to see computer science less as a hobby and more as a career path when he took a course in the subject during his first semester at Guilford Community College.

“That helped me on computer science,” Aguilera said. “I was like, ‘That seems fun. This is interesting.’ I didn’t know it was such a booming career. I looked into it a little more and was like, ‘OK. I could make a career out of working with technology and computers. I’m going to switch routes.’”

Aguilera earned an associate degree in the spring of 2020 and then transferred to Carolina the following fall to start work on a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Transferring colleges in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, Aguilera said, but became easier as on-campus events started returning later in his first year in Chapel Hill. Through intramural sports and C-STEP, Aguilera was able to build a supportive community at Carolina.

“I think C-STEP is probably one of the biggest things that made me feel connected to Carolina. Without C-STEP, it’d be a lot harder to establish good friendships and mentorships,” Aguilera said. “I also got to play some soccer and basketball and got involved in some clubs. The biggest thing I’m going to miss at Carolina is going to basketball and football games. Attending those was really fun.”

Inside the classroom, Aguilera built on the skills he gained at Guilford Community College by learning more theoretical knowledge of computer science — something he didn’t know he needed before.

“You would know how to program, but that’s not actually knowing how a computer works,” he explained. “By coming to Carolina, I got a deeper dive into how the machine actually works. It’s not just, ‘Here’s how to program this.’ It’s more like trying to give you a foundation for understanding how a system works.”

Aguilera leveraged what he was learning in his courses to earn an internship with Wells Fargo over the summer, working on the company’s software engineering team to design and implement web applications and webpages. The internship resulted in an offer for a full-time position at Wells Fargo in Raleigh that he’ll start in February.

Though he’s excited to start his new career, Aguilera says he’ll miss being a student in Chapel Hill.

“It feels bittersweet,” Aguilera said. “I don’t want to leave, but at the same time, I feel accomplished to be able to say that I got a degree from Carolina. It means a lot [to my parents] that one of their kids was able to make it in this country and get a degree.”

Learn more about C-STEP