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Long journey to a college degree is only the beginning for Noe Mercado

From El Salvador to Central Falls to Newport, Noe Mercado’s walk to the commencement stage at Salve Regina University has been anything but typical. When he receives his bachelor’s degree in biology on Sunday, a future once threatened by hardship is now filled with dreams, worlds away from where he started.

Born in El Salvador and raised by his grandparents since age 1, Mercado didn’t really “meet” his mother for the first time until arriving in the U.S. at age 8. She had moved to Providence – leaving Noe and his sister behind – in an effort to find a better life for their family. When Noe finally reunited with her, he discovered he had a new brother as well.

From their small Providence apartment, the promise of America remained elusive. Noe’s mom, who doesn’t speak English very well, struggled to provide for the family by working long hours at minimum wage in a factory. They later moved to Central Falls, where Noe attended Central Falls High School and his future took focus – even amidst extremely difficult times for the district.

In 2010, Noe’s senior year, the high school was named among the six worst schools in Rhode Island due to poor graduation rates and state testing scores. The school board took the unprecedented step to fire all its teachers and administrators, putting Central Falls in the national spotlight.

“There was a lot of tension in the school and the days were sometimes hectic where teachers had to leave the classroom or students were dismissed early,” Noe recalls. “Through all the commotion, several of my teachers never gave up and continued to teach and support the students who were confused as to the future of the school. They are the most wonderful professors who always believed that the students would succeed in life. They continued to smile every day even though they would soon have to look for other jobs to support their families.”

Despite the turmoil, Noe discovered a talent while taking honors biology and chemistry classes.
His National Honor Society advisor encouraged him to apply to Salve Regina, and followed up by setting up a meeting for Noe with the university’s chancellor, Sister Therese Antone, who had previously served as Salve Regina’s president.

In addition to introducing Noe to the university’s science programs, Sister Therese began addressing an even bigger challenge confronting the prospective student – his precarious financial situation. Unable to qualify for federal aid due to his immigration status, Noe was advised to apply for a full-tuition scholarship program at Salve Regina that Sister Therese had instituted during her presidency – the Aquidneck Island Multicultural Scholarship. She also helped him gain assistance through other resources to cover his first year of residency. After that, Noe served as a Resident Advisor for three years, and worked full-time jobs each summer to do what he could to fill in the gaps.

“Perhaps the greatest obstacle that I have had to overcome thus far was finding a way to afford college,” Noe says. “As I spoke to my mother about the costs of college, she would often say, ‘I’m sorry mijo (son) I wish I could help you.’ My dream became a reality once I learned that I was awarded the Aquidneck Island Multicultural Scholarship, which covered my tuition at Salve Regina for four years. I felt blessed.”

Once he got to Salve Regina, Noe found the academics to be very challenging but he flourished in all areas of his development with the help of a supportive community. His faculty mentor, Dr. JD Swanson, introduced him to research and he’s never looked back since.

“Research has been a major part of my life and it is because of Dr. Swanson that I was able to find my calling,” Noe says. “I learned several molecular techniques and also began working on a project that was funded by a research grant. I loved applying the concepts I learned in class.”

Last summer, Noe was at his station in the lab each morning at 8 a.m. to work on his research. He participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) of the National Science Foundation and has presented at several regional and national conferences.

“The faculty members in the department along with the students work closely together and celebrate each other’s success,” Noe says. “I know that I will always be welcomed as I have seen students that graduated several years ago return frequently.”

A Presidential Scholarship recipient and Dean’s List student during his Salve Regina tenure, Noe served as an AIMS Mentor and as a member of the Environmental Club, Spanish Club and Multicultural Student Organization. He also volunteered with the Newport County YMCA and Heatherwood Nursing Home.

At Villanova University next fall, Noe will pursue a master’s degree in biology with a concentration in molecular and cellular biology. Ultimately, his goal is to earn a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology, and perform research on Parasite-host interactions or cancer research, in particular studying the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. Mutations in these genes result in breast cancer.