Undaunted

12/01/2022 12:11 AM By Lisa Anderson
Focus on Literacy
Manuel Cortes Roldan
Manuel Cortes Roldan
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Undaunted

Drop-Out Learns English, Earns GED Through Literacy Council

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Manuel Cortes Roldan has never called one place home for long. From the age of 2, he vacillated between one place or another. “First, I came here when I was 2 years old, then I moved back when I was 5, then I came back again when I was 12.”

Manuel was in the fifth grade before he became acquainted with the United States’ education system. Linguistically, he felt little discrepancy in the change. “I didn’t see any difference, because when I came in, I went straight to the bilingual class. Everybody spoke Spanish, so I was like, okay,” Manuel shrugs. 

“I didn’t really like school. This is why I didn’t get my GED. It was because of the way the teachers acted towards you.” Manuel felt that most of his teachers invariably broke the little trust he had in them by overreacting to his childhood antics. “Once you acted out and did it, it was like the end of the world.

“If I had put my head down and did it, I would have done good, but I was the clown in the class,” Manuel says, describing his adolescent self ruefully.

“I failed the tenth grade,” Manuel shares. “I moved back to Puerto Rico.” He ultimately decided that school wasn’t for him. “I didn’t work. I was just doing whatever I could–stealing or riding horses.” Despite his roguish lifestyle, Manuel managed to avoid any serious trouble.

Once he tired of living on the edge, he decided it was time for a change. “Like, I can’t find work here,” he explains. “So, let me move back to the United States, so I can find a better solution.” Manuel was 19 years old when he finally returned to the States.

The heat was what brought Manuel to Ocala. “I was tired of the cold, man,” he laughs. “I came here with my grandma. She still lives with me.”

Winging It

Manuel’s involvement with the Literacy Council began with the president and CEO of Neighborhood Storage, Todd Rudnianyn. “It happened due to my brother. My brother was working with the mother of Todd on their farm. He said, ‘Hey, my brother is looking for work.’ After that, I was already hired as soon as my brother said, ‘He’s looking for work.’

“I started as maintenance,” Manuel recalls. “Just Tier 1: regular guy cleaning units, cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash, making sure everything was okay.”

Unlike other places Manuel has worked, he felt something different about the environment at Neighborhood Storage. “It’s like they really value you as an employee, where with the other ones, it felt like you were replaceable.”

Not only did Manuel feel appreciated at Neighborhood Storage, he also found people to uplift him. “Molly has been like the one who breaks me into the person I am today, little by little,” Manuel says fondly. Molly was Manuel’s manager and biggest supporter. “At the beginning, I felt I had no value; because of the other places, I didn’t care. She has been the one breaking that wall to the place I am now.”

Manuel also credits the owner of Neighborhood Storage for his change in outlook. “The owner himself coming to me, asking me to go to school and giving me all these options. I was like, ‘Why are you even doing this?’ He said, ‘You have a lot of potential, so you’re just wasting it.’

“I wanted to improve myself. I wanted to grow in this company that treats me so well. That’s when I asked Todd and Miranda, what could I do to grow in this company?” Miranda is part of Neighborhood Storage’s human resources department. She directed Manuel to the Literacy Council.

Despite his previous negative experiences with school, Manuel was undaunted by the challenge ahead. “I just winged it,” he says. “I needed to get my GED and just went for it.”


mockup

School Behavior

Both Neighborhood Storage and the Literacy Council were prompt about Manuel’s enrollment. “Literally, after three hours of speaking with Miranda in HR, she went straight to Todd. That’s when I got the phone call.”

To his surprise, Manuel excelled in the GED program. He believes his success was due to the different expectations for adult learners. “It wasn’t like school behavior,” he muses. “It was more like you’re here because you want to be here, so this is your choice. If you don’t pay attention, that will be on you.”

Manuel’s test scores increased exponentially during the program. His science tests alone increased 30 percent. “I think it was my determination to get the GED as fast as possible. I had a deadline for myself. I had to get this fast, so I could get my promotion.”

The penultimate moment in Manuel’s academic journey was passing his first test. “Being straightforward,” he begins, “it felt more awesome when I did the first test than when I got my GED.” It wasn’t until that first hurdle was cleared that Manuel felt equipped to tackle the rest.

Manuel has since been promoted to Lead of Maintenance at Neighborhood Storage. “They made me a trainer. Now, I know a little bit about how you feel teaching somebody something and they’re able to acquire that information, and you see them doing it for themselves.”

Academia hasn’t released its hold on just Manuel yet. “I would like to keep going,” he shares. “I’ve already talked to Todd about college. He’s already set me up with an email. Now, it’s up to me.”
Extended Content Available 12/01/2022
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