In this Saints Spotlight, Dr. Armando Retana ’06 speaks about his experience at Thomas More after transferring as a first-year student. Originally from Costa Rico, Armando talks about his involvement in sports, Alpha Delta Gamma, the International Student Group, as a member of Dr. James Camp’s Border Studies Class and Service Learning trip, and other initiatives. He also speaks to the impact the professors at Thomas More had as mentors and in guiding him to pursue a career as a cosmetic and dental surgeon.
David Klenk: Would you mind, in your own words, sharing what brought you to Thomas More as a student?
Armando Retana: Thank you for having me. Thomas More, it’s a long story how I ended up here – I’ll give you the short version of it. I came to the United States from Costa Rica about age 15 or so; I did my high school years in Maryland. I also went to a Maryland liberal arts school called St. Mary’s College of Maryland for one semester. Long story short, because of my immigration status at the time, and that school being a state-funded institution, I had to leave the school. Through a connection with my uncle and someone who had been here in Thomas More, an alumni of Thomas More, John Powers, he helped make the connection of me coming here to a private, Catholic institution that didn’t care about my immigration status. That’s how I ended up here. So, I came here in my second semester freshman year and I finished all three and a half years at this school.
DK: What a story to get to put on, and we’re so grateful that you’ve been put on here with us. What stands out in your mind about your student experience?
AR: What stands out – so many things. I was involved in so many things at Thomas More. I was a biology major; I also played soccer. I was involved with the International Student Group; also with ADG. All those things stand out. Like being a fraternity brother, I didn’t even know what a fraternity was at the time. I remember learning the concept through my cousin who was here already, and he was part of the fraternity and so he introduced me to it. A lot of the great memories I have about Thomas More and my ADG memories, along with soccer games and the camaraderie of being on the soccer team and being a team player, that kind of thing. What stands out the most actually, is the mentorship that I got here at Thomas More with Dr. (Chris) Lorentz and Dr. (K. Siobhan) Barone. Mainly those two took me like I was one of their kids and they went above and beyond to help me achieve what I wanted to achieve here at Thomas More and also beyond here – setting me up with amazing recommendation letters and amazing opportunities like research projects that I did with Dr. Barone in immunology, trips that I did with Dr. Lorentz to Chicago for research symposiums and things like that. All those memories right now; just thinking about it gives me goosebumps as to how much I did here and how many people impacted me, as well as Dr. Camp’s Border Studies Class. I got the opportunity to go down to the border with Mexico and spend a whole week down there looking at the whole immigration situation and me, being an immigrant, it really hit home for me. Those families, what they’re going through, what the church was doing for them and everything else. It really touched my heart to be down there for that week. Hopefully, I’ll get to experience that again with my family. I really want to take my wife and my kids down there. It just gives you a different perspective in life when you go down there and you see what the situation is like for those families. Being an immigrant person from an immigrant family, I know I never went through what they went through. I was able to get here in a different way than they did, or how they do every single day that they cross the border. Very impactful. All these activities I did here at Thomas More really shaped me as a young man and stimulated my mind in ways I that I can’t even describe.
DK: Can you tell us a little bit about that experience specifically, of when you went to the border with Professor Camp back then?
AR: The experience was amazing. I just remember going down there to El Paso, Texas first and then crossing over into Juarez and just seeing the difference. When you’re on the U.S. side there is a norm and then when you go to the Mexico side there’s a new norm. The new norm in Mexico is kind of ugly, it’s kind of tough to take it all in. The main thing I experienced there, I was there to help feed the immigrants that were at the church and also talk to them, to get their story. I would ask them, “Hey, how long have you been traveling? How many times have you tried to cross the border?” and all those things. Just getting their story and being a good listener for those people who just needed someone to listen to them and someone to understand where they are in life, what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do it. None of these people are criminals, none of these people are bad people. They’re just people that maybe are being persecuted in their own countries just like other cultures are being persecuted for religious reasons or whatever. I heard the story of one lady that was there, it was a grandma and her granddaughter and they told me that the gang members came to their house and told them they physically liked the 14-year-old daughter and they were going to come back later that night to take away the daughter so she can be the girlfriend of the gang member. They had to leave their town because of that. It’s either my granddaughter gets raped for the rest of her life if we stay here, or we can leave and ask for asylum in another country so that my granddaughter can have a normal life. That really touched me, that kind of story. The cops were not going to do anything; no one’s going to do anything because it’s so corrupt down there. Those kind of story just hit home for me. Luckily, I never grew up in a situation like that, but if someone came to my house and said something like that about my 13-year-old daughter, it’s either they have to kill me or if it’s not violence, you just have to leave town and go find life somewhere else. Very touching stories, that’s the main one that I remember.
DK: Would you mind sharing a short history behind your career path and important turning points?
AR: The main one I just shared with you guys, that I was kicked out of college because of my immigration status and that’s how I ended up at Thomas More – that was a huge turning point for me. Maybe if I never got kicked out of that college and I never came to Thomas More, I may not be a doctor today, I may not be a surgeon today, I may be something else. That was definitely a point in my life; that was a big turning point. Another big turning point was actually getting my green card. While I was here at Thomas More, as a junior, thinking about applications for dental school or medical school and thinking how am I going to pay for medical and dental school. My dad can’t afford it, I can’t afford it, how am I going to do it? Once I got my green card, that’s where my answer was. My answer was, you can take out student loans from the U.S. government; they’re willing to give you student loans to become a doctor because they know you’re going to pay them back. That’s what I did, I took out loans. Initially, I think it was $200,000 and I went to dental school with that, and then I took another $200,000 to go to medical school. I graduated with $400,000 in student debt, but like I was telling the students earlier today, that is okay. It’s low interest loans that you can pay back over time, that’s what we consider good debt. You’ve invested on yourself, you’re the only one that can mess it up. You’re the best investment you can make, in my opinion, instead of investing in and buying a really nice Ferrari or a nice car or something like that, that you can wreck that thing in two seconds and there you go, you have nothing now. That was a big turning point for me, being able to borrow money from the U.S. government to be able to put myself through school and become a doctor.
DK: What current projects and interests have you been working on?
AR: My projects right now – my entire career, I worked to improve myself and improve my skillset so I can provide for my family. Now, I’m working on my family. I got married about four years ago, my wife and I have been together for almost 10 years, we’ve been raising the kids together and just working on being present for my kids and my family. Mentoring them, being a parent, being present. A lot of times I feel like we can get so caught up in our career goals and our individual goals and we’re not focusing on our family, we’re not paying attention to the kids. We’re not paying attention to what are they doing, are they doing well in school? Are they into drugs? Are they not into drugs? What’s going on with their relationship status, are they dating, not dating? Being involved with them. That’s something I really – I try hard to make sure I make it home on time to talk to the kids and be part of them, especially with electronics these days. You know these kids can be on their electronics FaceTiming with their friends all day long, next thing you know you don’t have a relationship with your daughter, you don’t have a relationship with your son, and they look at you like you’re a strange person in the house. So, that’s my biggest project right now: being present for my wife and my kids and that’s something I don’t take for granted. I’ve got my career goals and I’m still working on them and mainly my career goals right now are to continue to improve my business model to make it a better business, a more profitable business but also a more smooth business in terms of like human resources and things like that, but also to be a good father and a good husband.
DK: Have you been able to stay in contact with any of your former classmates or professors from your time here?
AR: Mainly, I have a set of friends who graduated, from my generation, that we still keep in contact. One of them is Boris, he became an orthopedic surgeon. He’s out in California. We keep in touch. Another one was my roommate in college, Brian. He was a theater major and he is in Barcelona. I went to his wedding about three years ago. Amazing guy, he just had a son and is very proud of him. I hope you guys maybe bring him back here, he’s an interesting guy. Professors, absolutely. Dr. Barone, who retired not too long ago, I keep in touch with her. She’s actually in my area, we haven’t been able to go out to dinner but we’ll probably make it happen this fall or spring. Dr. Lorentz, the same, I’ve been able to sort of keep in touch with him. I just reconnected with him again, but here and there we’ve been able to keep in touch. Thomas More and my professors, who I consider my mentors, have been amazing and I love that they’re still around, that I can still talk to them, and that they can see what they helped me achieve – that they’re able to see that. I think as educators and mentors, they get a different feeling from seeing one of their students succeed and be fruitful.
DK: Is there anything else you would like to discuss or have any advice for upcoming students?
AR: Upcoming students, I would say, don’t be afraid to take risks. We like to live in our comfort zone and we don’t like to be in an uncomfortable zone, but sometimes you have to take a little bit of risk. Whether it’s financial risk or whatever it may be, don’t be afraid of it. Be positive, never think you’re going to fail, always think you’re going to make it. Speak it into existence; work hard. Nothing ever comes to you just by osmosis or just because – you have to make it happen. Same with your college experience, you can just let it happen or you can make it happen. Make your college experience what you want it to be, take advantage of it. You’re only here for a limited amount of time and then the next thing you know you’re in the real world so enjoy it, do as much as you can, and follow your heart.
DK: Well spoken. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to sit down with us, Dr. Retana. It’s been a great talk with you, and thank you all so much back home for watching another edition of Saints Spotlight. Be sure to tune in for the next one and we’ll see you around, have a good one.