A Bronx Tale: Broward College Student and New York Native Rafael Vidal Jr. Learns to Expand Comfort Zone and Thrive in New Academic Environment

As a transplant to South Florida from the Bronx, Broward College student Rafael Vidal, Jr., traded one fast-paced environment for another. But for the 19-year-old Criminal Justice major, the move was much more than a change of scene. In fact, it was an opportunity to prove to himself—and to the world—that environment doesn’t shape destiny: ambition does.

Making the Move

August 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of Rafael’s move from New York to South Florida. The transition wasn’t easy for him, but for Rafael, life to this point had rarely been easy. He grew up in the projects of the South Bronx and as a Latino and member of the LBTQ+ community, faced intolerance and bigotry in pockets of his social life.

“It wasn’t the easiest upbringing, and it often made me a person of antisocial nature when it came to extracurricular activities,” he said.  

As a result, Rafael focused heavily on his academics. With the support of his mother, who always pushed him to secure a better life than she ever had, he developed a genuine fondness for education and promised himself that he would always do his best to excel.

And excel he did, earning high marks through elementary and middle school. As high school rolled around, a college career seemed like a foregone conclusion. But in junior year, when he began to apply to colleges and universities, he became extremely discouraged by the application process. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic throw the future of in-person education into uncertainty, but he received some disheartening news from a guidance counselor.

“One of my high school advisors essentially told me that one’s financial standing, unfortunately, does hold much of the weight in determining which college you attend,” said Rafael. “Coming to this reality and finding out how much of burden financial factors were when trying to decide which college to pursue was certainly one of my lowest lows. I can’t count the instances in which I sat in my bedroom watching over the Bronx’s skyline and burst into tears of frustration.”

After some reflection and a big dose of inspiration from his mother, Rafael decided that he would not let his financial situation dictate his path to higher education. Instead, this low point in his life encouraged him to hunt for scholarships and other opportunities that could get him closer to his goal of attending college.

A Dream Fulfilled through Helios

That was when he discovered the Helios Education Foundation Scholarship, which aims to accelerate the pace of change in Florida by awarding scholarships to specific populations—first-generation, low-income, and Black college students—to help them attend school. He applied and was elated to learn that he would be the recipient of a $10,000 scholarship. The scholarship paid $2,000 per year for his first two years at Broward College and will pay an additional $2,000 per year for another two or three years throughout his transfer to Florida International University.

“This act of resilience paid off both literally and figuratively,” he said. “It landed me where I am today, in a comfortable spot with my education journey.”

Indeed, Rafael’s time at Broward has greatly expanded his own comfort zone. Balancing a full-time work schedule with his studies was exhausting and tiring at times, but it has not been without its fair share of milestones and highlights, including one opportunity in which he got to share Broward College’s message with the world.

“My most meaningful and memorable experience was when I was presented with the fun opportunity to partake in a casting call for one of the College’s advertisement campaigns,” said Rafael. “It was very spontaneous of me and out of my comfort zone to be in makeup, in front of lights and cameras and in the presence of so many people, but one thing I can say is the experience was one of my initial steps to breaking out of my shell and becoming more social.”

The next step on Rafael’s journey will be to transfer to Florida International University and ultimately pursue a career in criminal justice, where he hopes to inspire others to be true to themselves and refuse to let their surroundings shape them.

“I hope my story inspires others to not let their upbringing define them,” he said. He wishes the same for his new career in law enforcement, which he feels is too often cast in the wrong light. If he can change his own perceptions about himself, he’s confident people can change their mind about his future work in law enforcement.

“I hope to change society’s perspective on law enforcement through the work I do,” he said.


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