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How one man went from construction worker to Rice University graduate

He remembers one day a security guard said to him, “'The construction site is around back.' I was like ‘I’m a student here. I go here.’”

HOUSTON — Rice University has graduated its 110th class, including a very unusual student -- a father of three who went from construction worker to Rice grad.

Graduation is a milestone.  Just ask 33-year-old Thomas Avalos.  After 10 years in the marine corps, he became a roofer then wanted to pursue college and started at a local community college.

Sometimes he went to classes in his work clothes.  

He remembers one day a security guard said to him, “'The construction site is around back.'  I was like ‘I’m a student here. I go here.’” 

For Thomas, it was a pivotal moment.  

“My grandpa, he worked construction his whole life.  My dad still works in construction. I remember thinking, 'My grandpa did not come from Mexico for me to just pay the bills.'”

At the urging of an advisor, Thomas applied to Rice University in what Thomas called a “Hail Mary.” That year 27,000 students applied. Only 2,300 were accepted.

“I never imaged somebody like me would be able to make it to a school like this," Thomas said.

KHOU 11's Shern-Min Chow asked him, “What do you mean by that? ‘Someone like me?’”

Thomas laughed and answered, “A military veteran with three kids, with a wife with a mortgage, working in construction.”

Around the time his third child was born, Thomas was accepted.

Two days later he drove up the university’s iconic entrance.  

“I was in my work truck. I just remember staring at Lovett Hall and just crying," he said. 

He knew his life was about to change its trajectory.

Getting in was hard. Getting out was harder.  

“There was two months when I had three jobs. I might've been the only one walking across the stage, but it couldn’t be done without the support of family, my wife in particular," Thomas said.

He often started his day at 5 a.m., ended it after midnight, working full time, nights and weekends when necessary, and had three kids to raise. But he says it was all worth it

“I work in sales and service. I’m an account executive for the Houston Astros. I manage approx. 490 accounts. I’m a firm believer that effort is gonna trump skill on almost any day," Thomas said.

Now he said it’s his wife’s turn. Kristin is starting at community college too but has her sights set on the University of Texas at Austin.

Watch the full interview here:

I'm not sure why Thomas Avalos' 'Roofer to Rice University graduate' story moved me as much as it did. I teared up reading his email to me below and choked up while pitching his story to our producers. My photographer Mark, who shot this raw interview attached below, wondered too suggesting "Maybe because this is what the American Dream should be?" Maybe. Maybe because it says hard work is rewarded, that families are vital, that marriages are partnerships, that work can be a source of fulfillment, that optimism is a strength, that we can chart our futures. Maybe. What I do know, is that this a chance to share some light in the world. So if you have a few minutes, read Thomas' email. Read his story in his own words. Then hear it, in his own words. Perhaps it will shine some light on your day. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ I was 30 years old when I first got accepted into Rice. My kids are 13, 8, and 3. When I first started going to school, my youngest was a new-born. I used to study until at least midnight because I knew he would wake up around 12:30 AM, I would feed him and then go to bed. I was working at a roofing company called Duro-Last after I got out of the Marine Corps. When I asked how I could get promoted I was told that I would have to move to Saginaw, Michigan. Once I heard that, I immediately knew I had to go back to school to get out of that job. I started at Lone-Star College Tomball, then transferred to Rice in January of 2021. My job with Duro-Last paid the bills but didn't provide hardly anything else in terms of fulfillment. I even remember at one point at Lone-Star I showed up to the school for class in my work clothes and a maintenance guy at Lone-Star told me to park at the back of the school. When I asked him why, he told me the construction site was in the back of the campus. I told him I was a student at the school and he apologized for assuming I was a part of the construction team because of how I looked. I remember that day in particular thinking to myself "I don't want people to assume they know where I belong based on how I look or how I'm dressed for work again". When I was at Lone-Star I initially went for Civil Engineering but I didn't feel any motivation to complete the curriculum, I'm sure my mindset regarding construction was, in part, due to the experiences I had while being a roofer. My counselor at the time, Stephen Wannamaker, told me that he didn't usually have a lot of vets that he suggested to apply to Rice but he said I should absolutely try my luck at applying. I was volunteering with a Veteran Supporting Organization (VSO) called ETS Sponsorship, I was in Phi Theta Kappa, I was a member of the Veteran Student Club, I had a full-time job and a 3.7 GPA. Ultimately, this led to me applying for Rice as a Sport Management major because I had always been a passionate fan of sports and I wanted to learn how to break into the industry. During the application process for Rice, I would drive around campus trying to imagine myself there and I never could. When I found out I got accepted, about two days later, I parked in front of Lovett hall and just cried in my work truck because I knew my life was going to change. April of 2022, I quit Duro-Last so I could give more hours to the Astros instead of just nights and weekends, I also got a new job with the Houston Dynamo in March so I knew there was no way I could keep working at Duro-Last and maintain all of the other things I was doing. After two years of working for the Astros, the ticket leadership saw fit to promote me to full-time once I graduated. Now, I manage nearly 490 accounts for the Astros as an account executive in the services department. I work in sales and service now full-time and couldn't be happier.

Posted by Shern-Min Chow KHOU on Saturday, May 13, 2023

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