The American Dream

Carmen Koly

Master’s Student

Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling



The year 2009 is going to be a landmark one in Carmen Koly’s life. First, she will complete USF’s master’s degree program in rehabilitation and mental health counseling through the College of Behavioral & Community Sciences. In addition, the native of Lima, Peru will become a naturalized citizen of the United States.


And while she plans to work as a certified rehabilitation counselor after graduation, Koly also intends to volunteer her time helping immigrants with the transition to life in the United States. It’s a commitment she feels strongly about and is making largely in gratitude for the support she received from USF when she was assimilating into American culture, herself.


For a dedicated student with an extraordinary work ethic growing up in a third-world country, the quintessential American dream – that education and hard work create virtually unlimited opportunities for success – was a magnet.


“It was always my dream to pursue my education in the United States,” she says referring to encouragement she received from a family member who had immigrated to the United States.


Koly experienced both hope and disappointment in achieving that dream when, in high school, she was offered a scholarship to attend an American high school as an exchange student. The cost of an airplane ticket was beyond her family’s modest means and put the opportunity out of reach. The incident, however, only strengthened her resolve to live her dream.


The first in her immediate family to do so, Koly started college in Lima studying psychology, but needed to work to finance her education. She became involved in a program that placed her in an hourly job in a fast food restaurant in Steamboat Springs, Colo. during summer break. She returned the following year to add to her savings, and during that visit, her life changed dramatically when she married and moved to Tampa.


“I was terribly homesick,” she says. “I didn’t know the language. I couldn’t drive. I didn’t even know where to go for Hispanic food. It was very hard.” Overwhelmed by cultural differences and personal difficulties, Koly turned to USF, where she knew she wanted to pursue her graduate degree. Here, she says she found “all the services and support” she needed to make achieving her dream a reality.


Classes through USF’s English Language Institute broke down language barriers. Academic advising helped her officially transfer to USF and complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Student clubs and organizations as well as activities for Hispanic students helped her make friends. From International Student and Scholar Services, computer labs, the library and health services to career planning and employment, she says the services so many American students “take for granted” were, for her, amazing opportunities.


In fact, she found the services she received through USF’s Counseling Center so valuable that the experience inspired her to choose counseling as her future profession. It was a decision she quickly put into action as she worked full-time as a case manager for a family services agency and then as a crisis response case manager for a mental health care organization while attending classes at USF.


“USF has been like my house. A place where I could always come in,” she says.


And for that reason, she wants to help others in similar situations feel welcome in their new home, as well.


“Becoming a U.S. citizen starts a new chapter in my life. It gives me a sense of belonging to American society. Equally, achieving a master’s degree means the beginning of a new stage and I feel that my job as a counselor is meaningful to this society.


“I will never forget all the assistance received from school, friends and family. The best way to show my gratitude is doing the same for others.”


-- Mary Beth Erskine, University Communications & Marketing