KOKOMO, Ind. — Until she was 13, Karedis Araujo lived a comfortable middle-class life in Venezuela.
Even as a young teenager, however, she could sense the unrest around her, as sudden declines in the price of oil destabilized the economy and undermined the government.
“I was scared,” said Araujo, now a sophomore at Indiana University Kokomo. “I did not want to keep living there. It’s basically a dictatorship. My parents didn’t want to go, because it meant leaving everything they’d worked for their whole lives.”
The day they attended a political protest, everything changed.
“The police were throwing bombs at us,” she said. “That was the moment we knew we had to leave. We couldn’t keep living like this.”
She and her parents joined the more than 7 million Venezuelans who have immigrated since 2015 due to economic and political turmoil. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the exodus – which represents a quarter of the country’s population – is the world’s second-largest refugee crisis.
The family gave up their successful insurance agency to move to Spain – her mother’s home country – but struggled because her father could not work due to his lack of citizenship. Friends encouraged them to apply for refugee status in the United States, which would allow them to have jobs and potentially gain citizenship in the future. They landed in Carmel, where her mother drives for Door Dash, and her father is an electrician.
“We had a good life, and they had to give it up for us,” Araujo said. “I admire my parents a lot.”
At the time, it seemed like the end of her plans to work in health care.
“My dream has always been to go to medical school and become a doctor at some point,” she said. “Everyone told me it wasn’t going to be possible for me to come to college because I don’t have citizenship and I’m an immigrant.”
She began learning English at Carmel High School, and working with teachers who helped her chart a path to college despite her obstacles, which were complicated because her application for refugee status was separated from her parents’. This meant she did not yet have a path to citizenship and would not qualify for financial aid.
Attending a conference for potential college students from Hispanic families, she met J.R. Pico, IU Kokomo teaching professor in Spanish and humanities. As an American citizen who immigrated from Colombia, he had a unique perspective on what she could do to make college possible — and he knew just the place.
Pico connected her with IU Kokomo financial aid specialists and found a local family willing to let her live with them rent-free while she began classes. She now commutes from her family’s home in Noblesville, after earning a driver’s license, getting a job when she could legally work, and purchasing a car.
“I’m 100 percent sure he’s an angel,” Araujo said of Pico. “He has been there for me and my family every moment. He is one of the people who has had the biggest impact on my life.”
She’s made the most of her chance, earning grades that qualified her for the dean’s list and the honors program, and participating in the Student Government Association.
Pico was the first person she spoke to when she decided she wanted to be a nurse rather than a doctor. He helped her successfully navigate the application process for the School of Nursing and Allied Health Professions.
Pico said Araujo and her family worked hard to make it possible for her to be admitted, and he’s proud of her success.
“When I met her, I immediately discovered she is the type of student we want at IU Kokomo,” he said. “Her passion for health care and her work ethic are immense. I am positive she will be an excellent professional and a very altruistic person.”
Her grandfather’s death inspired her career change. After his diagnosis of cancer, he was given just a few months to live, but survived 13 years.
“It was a miracle, and doctors can’t explain it,” she said. “I was a young child when he was diagnosed, and I remember seeing the nurses by his side, and by our side. They were a key part of the process in giving us hope. I want to be able to help someone like that.”
In addition to helping people, she hopes as a college graduate, she can provide stability for her parents, recognizing the sacrifices they’ve made on her behalf.
“I want to pay for my parents’ house,” she said. “That’s the first thing I want to do when I graduate and have a job. We bought a house, but they are still paying for it, and I know it’s a struggle. I know a big reason they moved here was for me. I want to give back to them, not because they asked me to, but because it would make me happy.”
Araujo also wants to encourage other immigrant students to pursue higher education.
“I can tell them that I am an immigrant, I don’t have citizenship yet, I can’t afford a lot of things, but I am in school,” she said. “I am a nursing major when everyone told me it wasn’t possible. If I can do it, I’m 100 percent sure they can too. They can do it. It isn’t easy, you just have to work a little harder. You can always find a way.”