EAST COUNTY — At 19 years old, Leonardo Leal-Guerrero still doesn’t have a place to call home.
These days, however, it doesn’t bother him like it did before.
As a sophomore at Stanford University, Leal-Guerrero, for nearly the first time in his life, has consistency — a roof over his head, food to eat and adults on which he can call for help and guidance.
“I’m not alone anymore,” says Leal-Guerrero, who returned to his hometown during Stanford’s winter break. “I actually have people I can count on, if I had an emergency or if my car breaks down. It feels great; before, everything was so (inconsistent).
“Having stability now is a calming feeling,” he says. “I can focus on graduating, not on where I have to stay or how to pay rent. I’m really happy to be there (at Stanford).”
Leal-Guerrero, who arrived in Florida Dec. 13 after completing his finals, will be in the area through Jan. 5.
He’s staying with the cousin with whom he lived during his last year of high school, in a small duplex near State College of Florida’s Bradenton campus.
“I haven’t been here for a long time,” Leal-Guerrero says of why he came home. “My cousin invited me.”
Leal-Guerrero’s story of perseverance and fighting for the American dream captured the hearts of East County residents in April 2011, after the East County Observer published a story on his accomplishments and how he’d been offered scholarships from both Harvard and Stanford universities.
The youth had bounced from relative to relative, straying away from life with an abusive stepfather, before taking shelter in a tiny duplex with his cousin. In three years, he moved five times and attended three high schools, at one point riding two hours on a county bus to and from school. He used the long ride to study and complete homework.
Several East County residents, in fact, came forward to support Leal-Guerrero financially with his schooling.
“I still have people who help me,” Leal-Guerrero says, adding their generosity helps him pay for clothing, activities and other expenses not covered by his scholarship at Stanford. “I’m very grateful. That’s another way I’m able to survive — I’m able to stay there (at Stanford).”
After graduating from Braden River High as the valedictorian of his class and also earning an associate’s degree from the State College of Florida, Leal-Guerrero traveled to Mexico for three months to see the grandmother who raised him. Then, he turned his full attention to his new academic endeavor — Stanford.
“The difference in class is a big thing,” he says, of why he chose the school over Harvard. “Stanford is a privileged place; you do find wealthy people, but the difference isn’t as evident as at Harvard. You see more happy people (at Standford). It’s a more relaxed place. It’s a very rigorous place, too.”
Leal-Guerrero says Stanford’s 10-week courses — rather than semester-long ones — make it even more challenging academically than he had anticipated.
“I expected it to be difficult, but I didn’t know it was going to be that difficult,” he says. “My roommate’s an aeronautics major; he basically doesn’t sleep for three days in a row (because of how much work he has.) In the end, it’s worth it. We meet so many people.”
While at a movie one night, he and his friends spotted Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. They didn’t get an autograph or even say “Hello,” but Leal-Guerrero says he’s not mistaken.
“It was him,” he says. “He was pretty easy to notice.”
Leal-Guerrero also knows the son of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, who attends Stanford.
Now in his sophomore year, he is majoring in economics.
“It’s a very useful major,” Leal-Guerrero says. “It’s applicable to many kinds of jobs. An economics major can specialize in finances or corporate law or something in that subsection. That’s one thing that interested me — the flexibility, and also how it pertains to people’s lives.”
Leal-Guerrero says he’s particularly interested in “developmental economics,” which is used to help undeveloped countries evolve into developed ones. In fact, he and his classmates are embarking on an exchange of sorts, with students at a college in Mexico. The program, which is being planned by students for the spring, will take Leal-Guerrero and about 14 other U.S. students to the Autonomous Technology Institute of Mexico to talk with education officials and politicians about Mexico’s education system and relations between the two countries.
Leal-Guerrero says he can’t wait to get started.
“That’s really exciting,” he says.
After he graduates from college, gains real-life work and business experience and saves enough money, Leal-Guerrero one day hopes to return to Mexico and start a business there to help bolster the country’s economic development.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].