Featured Story, Features

Through Doubts and Setbacks, Ouellette Excels for Family

 Josh Ouellette’s guidance counselor told him he shouldn’t apply to Boston College—he wouldn’t get in. It’s a prestigious school, admissions are too selective, he’s aiming too high.

For someone looking at Ouellette from the outside, maybe the counselor’s pessimism made sense. At a college where the median family income is $194,100, the campus is populated by alumni of the country’s leading prep schools, and students have legacies in Chestnut Hill going back decades, Ouellette did not fit the mold.

His family didn’t have money. His parents didn’t go to college. The first 18 years of his life, growing up in Malden, Mass., were far from easy. Both Ouellette’s parents suffer from physical and mental illnesses, and his brother is autistic. These difficulties made steady employment and family stability nearly impossible. At times, his parents each tried to work two jobs, but the illnesses and disabilities eventually made that impossible. During his childhood, the family went through periods of homelessness, and Ouellette quickly realized that he would have to grow up fast or the world would leave him behind.

“I’ve been the man of the house since roughly 10 years old,” he said.

Just dealing with the financial and emotional difficulties of the situation was a big enough challenge, but Ouellette had greater ambitions and wanted to do more for his family. To become the first person in his family to graduate from college, he would have to work harder than everyone around him. He managed to receive a full scholarship from Malden Catholic High School. Despite the constant financial and medical worries outside of the classroom, he dedicated himself to studying and getting into a good college. He knew that he was capable of it, even if the people who were supposed to support him doubted him. That was why he didn’t listen to his guidance counselor. He applied to BC, and a few months later he received an acceptance letter and was named a Pops on The Heights scholar.

Getting to BC didn’t end Ouellette’s struggle to succeed—far from it. Being dropped in the competitive environment, surrounded by students with years of experience at prep schools, he found it difficult to adjust. In the school of management, he found that classes demanded hours of study and that professors expected students to learn the material outside of class. Time and effort weren’t a problem for Ouellette, but learning the material wasn’t only about dedication—he had to buy the book.

Financial aid doesn’t cover textbook expenses, and Ouellette, CSOM ’18, found himself struggling to get copies of textbooks that cost between $300 to $600. For some classes, he would go without the expensive book, and his grades would suffer. This difficulty was part of the larger struggle he experienced as a first-generation college student. Navigating the realities of college life was confusing for someone without a family network to fall back on. Other multi-generation BC students had years of experience behind them. Students whose parents hadn’t gone to BC still had a support system that understood college and what it required. Ouellette found that his best resource was himself. This self-reliance helped him make it through his first year of college.

“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “I was winging it … My parents couldn’t help me with anything.”

Looking for support at BC, Ouellette found that some professors didn’t have time for him. He would ask for help at office hours and be turned away without everything he needed. This was disheartening, but he also found some professors—like his freshman perspectives professor David Johnson—who mentored him through the difficult first years at BC. He took this help and doubled his efforts to succeed.

“He is driven, I think, to do what he does for the sake of his family,” Johnson said in an email. “We have spent many hours in my office talking about his family and his dreams for both himself and them. What I admire most about him is that he thinks of his future success in terms of what he will be able to do for them.”

Despite Ouellette’s best efforts, money continued to be an obstacle, not only for textbooks, but outside of academics. If people on his floor were going into the city, he couldn’t afford the cost. He couldn’t use what money he had on something frivolous like that. He had to prioritize his responsibilities and goals over everything else.

“I had to sacrifice the traditional college experience just to be able to achieve at minimum the same thing,” he said.

In four years at BC, Ouellette has never attended a football game. They waste too much time and he has work to do. During the games, while other students tailgated and cheered, he went to the library and used his day off to study. There’s never been enough time in the day for Ouellette. If other students started off with an advantage over him—money, academic experience, connections—he wasn’t going to let them beat him in effort.

“The best person to figure out what’s best for you is yourself at the end of the day,” he said.

The work paid off after junior year, when he secured an internship position at Goldman Sachs. He quickly turned that internship into a post-graduation job offer. While for many BC students, this is the goal they’ve been working for their entire undergraduate careers, it is only the first part of what Ouellette wants to do. First he wants to help people like him who have to overcome financial barriers to attend college.

He took a position as a senior advisor for the first-generation club on campus and is using that position to spearhead sessions to help first-generation students understand how to navigate the world of finance. At the same time, he has also co-founded an initiative called the First Generation Affinity Network, which helps connect first-generation students, who have no family network in the world of Wall Street. His co-founder Isabella Viola, MCAS ’18, was convinced to take on the initiative when Ouellette contacted her.

“The way he pitched to me made me really want to get involved,” she said. “Josh is an extremely motivated person. Just seeing him at BC—I think he’s the person that’s always looking for his next step—whether that in his career, his classes, extracurriculars.”

Ouellette’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed at BC. He was nominated by senior faculty members to represent BC during a trip to Washington D.C., to meet with congressmen and senators to discuss higher education policy. During the late-October trip, he and two other BC students will join other students from across the country to bring their ideas to Washington, and will get a firsthand look at the policymaking offices that control much of the federal aid that helped Ouellette attend college in the first place.

Once he graduates and moves on to Wall Street, he has no desire to stop striving. He’s planning to apply to Harvard Business School to get an MBA, after which he can return to Goldman and expand his career in finance. Further into the future, he has two ultimate goals. To be the CEO of his own company and to get into politics, maybe even to run for President one day.

But for now, he has still has seven months left at BC, and he won’t let up. Everyday he gets out of bed between six and seven in the morning for a day of studying and work and back to bed by one in the morning. It’s a tough schedule he has to maintain to achieve what he’s set out for himself. At this point, Ouellette knows that he has accomplished a lot and is on the road to the future successes he hopes for, but that doesn’t change the most important thing in his life. Through all his long days full of commitments and his late nights studying, he makes a point to remember one crucial thing above all others, something that reminds him not only of his responsibilities, but of the motivation that keeps him working.

“I always call my mom—every single day,” he said. “I never forget to do that.”

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

October 15, 2017