Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez on Staying Motivated and Becoming an Advocate

Throughout his life, Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez, GS’24, has needed to dig deep to find motivation in the face of challenges.

June 22, 2023

“I am alive. As you can see, I'm not a ghost. But I was almost dead three times,” Ferdinando joked. He laughed, but the humor is based in truth: He is no stranger to brushes with death. 

Ferdinando and his fraternal twin brother were born prematurely in Venezuela, and his family was told by a doctor that he had no more than one month to live. In what would become a theme in his life, Ferdinando beat the odds and survived. 

As a child, he struggled with food sensitivities and was frequently sick. Hoping to keep him healthy, his mother pushed him – sometimes against the advice of doctors – to exercise and eat a variety of foods to help him grow and gain strength. 

He, in fact, did grow stronger and began to play soccer at the age of three. Then, when he was seven, Ferdinando fell from a great height while playing with his brother. Again, doctors said he was unlikely to survive. And, yet again, he beat the odds and did just that.

“A big part of who I am is that my childhood was mixed with a lot of mature stuff,” he said. “I wasn't fully a kid. My mother always protected me, but… the mortality was always there.”

Despite the physical challenges of his childhood, Ferdinando dreamed of playing professional soccer. He learned four languages in hopes he might play in Europe someday. He continued to push forward and played professionally on Caracas’ regional team while studying at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. His dream came to a halt, though, when he was forced to leave Venezuela at the age of 24.

“I am alive. As you can see, I'm not a ghost. But I was almost dead three times”

Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez, GS’24
Ferdinando with his mentor from Dallas-Richland College

One day, a political official approached Ferdinando and told him that he must leave the country within a week or be killed. He was being targeted for voicing skepticism about his government’s economic policies. “I was saying the quality of life in the country was not going to be long lasting,” Ferdinando explained – a perspective that Venezuelan officials refused to hear or tolerate. 

Afraid for his life, Ferdinando left Venezuela and came to Texas, where some of his family already lived. He is one of more than 7.3 million Venezuelans who have fled their country since 2014. “Venezuela is a beautiful country. But the deterioration was so fast,” Ferdinando said. Since leaving, he’s worked to be an advocate for Venezualans in similar situations.

After watching a loved one suffer a mental health crisis during his first year as a student in the United States, Ferdinando also became passionate about promoting mental healthcare. He was not yet sure what his path to advocacy might look like, so he involved himself in campus life as he earned his Associate’s Degree at Richland College in Dallas, Texas. 

“My life became just the university and I was doing a lot of work there, volunteering more than 2,000 hours [per semester],” he said. 

Ferdinando in Dallas College regalia

During the COVID-19 lockdown, participation in clubs and student life at Richland dwindled, but Ferdinando remained motivated. He led multiple student organizations, volunteering to educate peers about sexual harassment, promoting mental health and wellness initiatives, and serving in inter-collegiate student government. He also became the State Chair of the Texas Junior College Student Government Association’s Resolutions Committee, a student-led group governing all public community colleges in Texas. As State Chair, Ferdinando worked to pass five resolutions promoting mental health and well-being

These resolutions required community colleges to include mental health resources in their orientation materials, improve resources for students with disabilities, create a training program for students and staff about sexual harassment, make feminine hygiene products available in campus restrooms, and create a clothing closet and food pantry to help meet students’ needs. 

“It took me two years of scaling up [leadership] positions,” Ferdinando said. Passing the resolution about mental health resources was especially meaningful. “I cried that day,” he recalled. 

Ferdinando was driven by passion to support others, but this hard work also ended up working in his favor. At Richland, he earned numerous scholarships and service awards, including The President’s Volunteer Service Award. He was selected for the All USA Academic Team, granted to the top 20 students nationally for excellence in academics, leadership, and service. In his final year at Richland College several Dallas community colleges merged to become Dallas College, and Ferdinando became the school’s first valedictorian. 

As he began to plan his next steps, Ferdinando received marketing materials in the mail from the Columbia School of General Studies (GS), and after applying and being accepted, he was still unsure whether he could afford to attend an Ivy League university. During his final semester at Richland, Ferdinando’s advisor requested his help for an event and told him to dress formally since the dean would be in attendance. Ferdinando was used to being tapped to help at campus events, but this one took him by surprise.

“Every professor I had, every mentor, everyone was there,” Ferdinando said. Unbeknownst to him, his entire school community had organized a surprise for him and his family. That night he was awarded a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, a highly selective scholarship for community college students seeking to complete their bachelor’s degrees. “It was amazing… a game changer,” said Ferdinando. 

The scholarship made his dream to attend Columbia financially possible. He resolved to bring the same dedication and ethos of service along with him to Columbia. 

Ferdinando delivering valedictorian speech at Dallas College

Having just finished his second year at Columbia, Ferdinando continues to dedicate his time to help others and hopes to someday work in advocacy or with the United Nations to support displaced Venezuelans. “I wasn't engaged in preventing this thing in my country from happening,” he said. “I know people after me will suffer.”

This remains a central point of motivation for him as he engages with the Columbia community and prepares for the future. Ferdinando is the current president of the United Nation Association (UNA) of Columbia University, and during his tenure the club’s membership increased from less than 10 students to more than 500 students, making it one of the largest UNA collegiate chapters in the nation. He also received the Columbia GS Spirit Award last year for his leadership and service on campus and is a member of the Honors Program in the Political Science Department (Pi Sigma Alpha).

“My education helped me understand better what happened in my country, the whole issue of the resources… why the culture became what it was.”

Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez, GS’24
Ferdinando receives the GS Spirit Award. Here he poses with a fellow recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship.

“My education helped me understand better what happened in my country, the whole issue of the resources… why the culture became what it was,” said Ferdinando.

When asked if he had advice for peers and students new to Columbia, he said, “Engage, don't be passive. As an international student, I never knew the resources that were available to me. It was me, knowing other people who would say, ‘Have you looked into this fellowship? Have you looked into this scholarship?’”

Most of all, Ferdinando shared the importance of joining clubs and student organizations and reaching out to peers on campus. “We are all going through emotional experiences,” he said. “You might find someone right next to you who is going through it and, together, you can give each other strength.”

“We are all going through emotional experiences… You might find someone right next to you who is going through it and, together, you can give each other strength.”



Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez, GS’24


headshot of Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez

Ferdinando Castro-Gonzalez is a student in the School of General Studies, a University Life Ambassador, a recipient of Columbia GS Spirit Award, a member of the Honors Program in the Political Science Department, Pi Sigma Alpha, and President of the United Nation Association (UNA) of Columbia University. He received the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship for his service and academic excellence at Richland/Dallas College, was the inaugural valedictorian of Dallas College, and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Ferdinando was born and raised in Venezuela and hopes to become an advocate for others who have fled his home country.