By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

This is the story about how Noel Felix came to feel at home on the Los Banos campus of Merced College, and how the support he found there changed his life.

Understand that when Felix graduated from Los Banos High School in 2015, his mother had passed away a few years earlier, he had just turned 18, and he had just been kicked out of the house he was living in with his aunt.

“I was an adult and I had to go figure it out,” he said.

Felix did, backed by the support network of the First-Year Learning Community on the Los Banos campus. Five years later, Felix is a semester away from graduating from Fresno State with a business degree.

“It’s humbling to think about,” he said. “Merced College professors want you to grow. In every one-on-one situation, they would give advice on what you should do and what they thought was best for you. It helped me stay motivated.”

Felix took a few detours before becoming a model student.

To start, he had zero interest in college after graduating from Los Banos High. He did enroll at Merced College, but failed a class his first semester, and quit.

“Yeah, I failed myself,” Felix said. “I regret that. I was on my own trying to figure out how to live, like ‘What am I gonna do now? If I’m gonna improve my life, it’s gonna be on me.’”

He moved to San Jose with his brother and continued working. Something about grinding out work every day while making no progress in life left him craving more.

“I felt like I could do better as a person,” Felix said. “I felt like I deserved better. Then coming from a family of immigrants, I was bilingual and I realized there were resources out there I could work with. I could do way better than I did the first time around.”

Felix retook and passed the algebra class he’d failed before at Evergreen College in San Jose. When his brother joined the Army, Felix moved back to Los Banos.

English professor Cindy Chavez noticed Felix right way.

He didn’t raise his hand in her class for months. He also didn’t miss a class, showed up early, handed in his work early and excelled at everything.

Chavez once read one of his assignments and tried to compliment him as a great writer. “And he said, ‘Me? No, not me!’” she said. “He was so timid, he didn’t want anyone to know. But he stood out, as if there was a spotlight on him.”

Felix said he was able to make his mark because his college support system “treated us like adults, and showed us how to be professional and go the extra mile.” Jazmin Serrano, Felix’s counselor at Los Banos, said younger freshmen gravitated towards the older Felix, who quietly attacked his studies with brutal efficiency, acing five classes per semester.

“He made friends quickly,” Serrano said. “He asked questions and helped others. Whatever was going on in his life, he never let that affect his academics. He’s taken every opportunity he could. Others looked to him as a leader in our learning community.”

Now a semester shy of earning his bachelor’s degree, Felix bristles with hope about the future. He wants to work for one of the biggest companies on the American business landscape—Apple, Google, Amazon. He wants a shot at Silicon Valley.

“I think having a degree will open up a lot of doors to companies I could never have imagined working for, or for networking with people and starting up a business,” Felix said. “Who knows what will happen in another five years?”

Still, Felix doesn’t beat his own chest about his success.

He doesn’t dwell on why people find his personal story so moving, either, but he now understands how empathy reshaped his future.

It’s why he also devotes free time to volunteering at the Fresno State food bank, at a local church and with Habitat for Humanity when he’s not studying or working.

Once uncertain, Felix now feels like he’s prepared for anything.

“When people told me I couldn’t [do well in college] I felt I had to do it,” he said. “I figured out there was a solution to every problem. Now I know how to ‘embrace the suck’ and move on with it. I wouldn’t be here now, almost graduating, if those things hadn’t happened to me. I wouldn’t have pushed myself to find my purpose in life.”