“I honestly thought I would never get here.”

December 12, 2017

Giancarlo Mone, studying applied technology leadership, is a first-generation Italian-American and—as of this semester—a first-generation college student, too. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

“I really thought that I met a dead end. I flat-lined,” said Giancarlo Mone, a first-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in applied technologies leadership at UAA.

“I honestly thought I would never get here.”

A first-generation Italian-American, Giancarlo worked most of his life in manual labor, including many years as a New York City garbage truck driver. He often looked into college programs near his home in Staten Island, but never found a curriculum that motivated him to enroll.

Then, he and his wife moved North.

“Coming here,” he said, “Alaska seemed completely different.”

Coming to America

The son of immigrant farmers from outside Napoli, Giancarlo was born and raised in a tightknit Italian family and neighborhood.

“Once I got out of high school, there were times when I didn’t even speak English,” he said. “I never had to.”

In Italy, many members of Giancarlo’s family didn’t even attend high school. They were olive harvesters and tobacco pickers and money was tight. Giancarlo’s grandfather would often head to the nearest town square to barter homemade olive oil for dinner supplies, like sheep and goats. Back at the farm, there was no plumbing or electricity. This wasn’t some bucolic slice of history—this was the 1970s.

“One summer day [my grandmother] saw all her kids sitting under a tree, and they were all about 18 years old, and she just started crying. This is going to be the future for them,” Giancarlo recalled.

So she told her husband she was leaving for the States, and the family followed. “[My dad] thought he was in paradise,” Giancarlo said. “All he saw was manicured lawns and modern amenities like a toilet and electricity. They truly came from nothing.”

His grandma’s decision has always motivated Giancarlo to make the best life for himself.

“To me, I felt like I needed to show that gratitude, that appreciation for being in America instead of picking olives,” he said. Though his parents never pushed him toward college, he knew it would provide the next boost.

But enrolling in college is difficult when no one in your family has ever even applied. Year after year, Giancarlo researched schools, then found a reason not to go. Instead, he continued working up to six nights a week as a garbage man and construction worker, occasionally driving taxis to save extra money for his wedding.

Escape from New York

Much like his grandma, Giancarlo left home in search of better opportunities. He and his wife arrived in Anchorage in April 2016; she had friends here, and he knew there was a diesel technology program at UAA. He credits his wife for finally getting him in the classroom. “She knew my passion was heavy-duty trucks, and she just kept pushing me,” he said. “I just wasn’t content in life.”

This summer, Giancarlo walked inside UAA’s Auto Diesel Technology garage and found Assistant Professor Chip Defendorf.

“I stopped and introduced myself. ‘I’m an older student and I don’t have time to waste, what am I going to learn?’” Giancarlo recalled. Chip showed him around and introduced him to the faculty. “I could tell they knew their stuff and also had a passion,” he added. That visit, along with guidance from Inge Bristow in Financial Aid (“She is truly a lifesaver”) encouraged him to finally enroll.

At UAA, Giancarlo found classmates of all ages and backgrounds, and nothing but encouragement from the auto and diesel faculty. “After hours, if I have a question, it never seems to be a problem,” he said. All that support made his first semester a success.

Giancarlo, center, works on a Seawolf Shuttle in the Auto Diesel Technology garage. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Blue-collar world

Giancarlo’s parents always encouraged him to do what’s best for himself. They just didn’t expect him to move 3,300 miles away from the family. “My mom was actually mad at me,” he said. “My dad cried.”

His parents will visit this spring, and Giancarlo and his wife hope they’ll decide to stay. Caring for them is important to him and his wife… but they’re not planning to leave.

“I don’t see myself moving back,” he noted. “I wanted to see intellectual smarts in a blue-collar world, and I feel Alaska has that.”

Like the small town squares outside Napoli, Alaska has a strong sense of community, too, and Alaskans have made him feel at home.

“My culture enjoys getting close to others, having real working relationships. There is a saying, ‘La temperatura è molto fredda, eppure la gente è calda come a casa.’”

In other words: The temperature is very cold, yet people are as warm as home.


Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement
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