MANKATO — By earning his degree at Minnesota State University, Almilcar Ulises Valdez defied the odds.
The 42-year-old, one of MSU’s student speakers at a Saturday commencement ceremony, started serving a federal prison sentence related to drug distribution in 2006.
After the cell door slammed shut behind him, he was determined not to waste his time behind bars.
“This is where I started my academic journey,” he said during his speech. “Most importantly, in prison I began the betterment of my character.”
Valdez, a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in Madelia, earned credits toward a degree during his nine-year sentence. He went on to complete his associate’s degree at Century College before majoring in communications and minoring in biology at MSU.
Christopher Brown, dean of MSU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, introduced Valdez to the stage Saturday and described him as someone who doesn’t withdraw from tough times.
“He speaks passionately about the challenges that life offers and the struggles to search for real meaning, real purpose and a real direction in life,” he said.
Like so many non-traditional students, Valdez had his hands full while studying. He operates his own Mankato-based business, Trinity Tree Services, has a 6-year-old daughter, does nonprofit work, and is active at New Creation World Outreach Church.
One of his messages to other non-traditional students is it’s never too late to start or come back to school.
“One of my biggest fears was that I’m getting too old to do things,” he said. “That can’t be further from the truth.”
Valdez described falling in with the wrong crowd in his younger days. He had easy access to drugs and started selling it to make money, later getting busted and sent to prison at age 25.
An eye-opening first year in prison showed him he couldn’t mess around in that environment or he’d never get out. He cited the following Malcolm X quote among his inspirations.
“A prisoner has time that he can put to good use. I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”
Family and friends, including friends met while in prison, came to the commencement to support him. Derek Carlson and Valdez bonded over their shared love of music while serving time — Carlson is a drummer; Valdez is a guitarist.
For Carlson, driving down from Duluth to celebrate Valdez’s milestone was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I was thinking I’ve got to be there for it,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of this guy.”
Valdez credited Carlson with encouraging him to earn his degree. The two said they hold each other accountable, and it helps to have people to talk to who know what it’s like being incarcerated.
That support, along with that of other friends and family, meant so much on commencement day, Valdez said.
“They have my back,” he said. “They’re taking their time to be here, and the weather isn’t even that nice.”
Valdez was one of three student speakers Saturday. Isabel Estrella Rodriguez-Mendoza, originally from Puerto Rico, shared her story of becoming the first Latina to complete the educational leadership doctoral program at MSU.
Rodriguez-Mendoza pursued her doctorate while serving as principal at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis. She said she was overwhelmed with gratitude for all those who supported her through her academic journey, and knows she won’t be the last Latina to complete the program.
Cindy Wuddah, a construction management major, spoke about being the first person in her family to move from Ghana and study in the United States. Her father, who she hadn’t seen since 2019, was in attendance.
All three speakers praised their professors for challenging them and encouraging them during their time at the university. Valdez referred to professors and deans who empathized with his struggles and refused to give up on him.
“I now stand before you a changed man, a man who today has achieved academic success and will forever build character, because that is the goal of true education,” he said. “Our paths may not be the same, but our goals resemble each other: to better ourselves, to better our community, to better this world.”
Achieving his bachelor’s degree may not be the last academic stop for Valdez. He can see himself returning for a master’s, maybe even becoming a professor someday.
He finished his speech by sharing how he hopes his daughter follows his example to pursue her dreams.
“My hope is that one day she will walk onto this stage remembering that her daddy did the same thing years before, and I pray that you will possess both intelligence and character,” he said.