When Will Arvelo was six years old, he lived in a house with dirt floors and went to school with no shoes. At nine he had his first job. At ten he was self-sufficient and contributing to his family. Today, he is the President of one of the most well-respected community colleges in the region and is the 2013 Campaign Chair for United Way of the Greater Seacoast.
Will is the oldest of five children, all of whom were born to his mother by the time she was 21. Born in Puerto Rico, Will and his family eventually moved to Spanish Harlem. He began his long journey in education state-side as a first-grader, possessed with a passion to learn even at a young age.
His fierce work ethic joined his academic curiosity, propelling Will to a prominent role in his family as both a bread-winner and a role model for his brothers and sisters. Not that there was much choice; his father, in and out of the picture at the best of times, succumbed to alcoholism and died when Will was still in school.
“It was a challenge to figure out what was right and was wrong without adults there to guide you,” he says.
But Will kept pushing, working his way up at the bodega where he had his first job, and rose from stock boy to cashier to inventory clerk. The world of academia constantly beckoned, however, and it was during his years after high school, while laboring as a motorcycle mechanic, when he got the call that changed his life. It was from a close friend in Boston, asking if he wanted to move north, split an apartment and perhaps restart his college career.
That was the final push and like that Will was off and running. He reeled off three degrees from UMass Boston, a B.A. in History, an M.S. in Public Policy and Administration and an Ed.D in Higher Education Administration.
His first job was as a secretary at Bunker HillCommunity College in 1985 and in 1991 he was an Admissions Counselor. Will went on to higher and higher positions at Emerson College, Bard College, Roxbury Community College, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology and, in 2007, GreatBayCommunity College.
“I saw the transformative experience higher education can have on an individual,” he says, “and I fell in love with the work.”
His connection with United Way proved to be a perfect fit. United Way’s vision to build strong communities and empower children, youth and families to rise to their potential is a pinpoint reflection of Will’s values and life experience.
“Regardless of your situation in life,” he says, “if you have the personal drive and ambition, you too can have that transformative experience.”
As Campaign Chair, he will take an even more active role supporting United Way, allowing him to leverage the skills he’s developed as a college president.
“I am excited to talk about the wonderful work United Way is doing,” he says. “I enjoy building relationships and will take the message to the community of how we’re supporting children and families in the Greater Seacoast.”
There are few people who could be as well-suited to his venture as Will Arvelo. As a character study of the American dream, he can take with him perspective from all angles: as a recognizable face in the highest corporate levels, as an innovative leader in the field of education, and as a boy too penniless to afford shoes.
“So many people go through struggles,” he says, “but that shouldn’t prevent them from achieving their goals and living good and purposeful lives. Struggles don’t define our lives. At both Great Bay and United Way we want to give people the chance to pull themselves out. We want to build the doors people can walk through.”