Think Big

May 1, 2012

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A typical week for NC State senior Saul Flores is anything but typical. Take spring break, for example. While most American college students were enjoying a week of fun, Flores was leading a service trip to a rural Mexican village. There, he presented donations earmarked to pay the salary of an elementary school teacher for the year and dropped off donated computers and clothing.

Meanwhile in Raleigh, the Independent Weekly hit the streets with a cover story titled, “The Amazing Journey of Saul Flores.” There were calls from radio and television producers seeking interviews, and lots of messages from strangers.

“I heard from people offering help, asking when I was going to graduate and if I needed help finding a job,” Flores says. “I’m so excited about the future.”

What that future holds is anyone’s guess, but it’s unlikely to be typical. Like many NC State students, Flores leaves the university profoundly changed by his experiences here. As a member of the Caldwell Fellows program, he’s learned to order his life by the group’s philosophy: Think big.

Two years ago Flores did just that. Carrying only a camera and a backpack with a change of clothes, Flores made a journey of more than 5,000 miles, mostly on foot, from Ecuador to North Carolina, tracing the route many immigrants take to reach the United States and the promise of a better life.

Along his journey, which he called the “walk of the immigrants,” Flores took more than 20,000 photographs documenting both the breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking poverty of the region. On his return to the United States, Flores began displaying his photos and giving talks to raise awareness of immigration issues. And he set aside money from the sale of prints to support an elementary school in his mother’s hometown of Atencingo, Mexico.

From the beginning, the response to his journey was remarkable. Within weeks of returning to campus, Flores was invited to give the keynote address at the 15th annual Latino Diamante Awards, presented with a leadership award at NC State and invited to give a two-hour lecture at rival UNC-Chapel Hill for Hispanic Heritage Month. He was a featured speaker at the first TEDxNCSU event and appeared on the American Public Media interview program, “The Story,” heard on more than 100 public radio stations.

His story has been told and retold: in the student yearbook, on the university website, in the alumni magazine and in the chancellor’s annual report. His photographs are the subject of a major exhibit in the D.H. Hill Library and his face, full of thoughtful intensity, is seen briefly in a video celebrating the university’s 125th anniversary.

Janice Odom, director of the Caldwell Fellows, says Flores is typical of the students in the program.

“There’s a lot of inspiration in this community,” she says. “The bar gets raised when you’re with people who are all doing exceptional things.”

Students in the Caldwell program receive a scholarship that covers the cost of their education. But, Odom says, the program expects something in return. “To whom much is given, much is required,” she says. “This is a privilege, this is not a prize.”

For Flores, it’s a privilege he won’t forget.

“From the moment I took a tour of campus as a high school student, there was no question at all. I knew NC State was the place for me,” he says. “They taught me that you are your only limitation. Anything you want to achieve, you can achieve. If there’s nothing stopping you, why should you stop yourself?”

Flores graduates in May with a degree in graphic design. After completing two summer courses, he will also earn a degree in business marketing.