uAspire First One – Magnolia Contreras

By: Chris Loney | Friday, November 16, 2012

Magnolia Contreras

Finances are the #1 barrier that keeps high-potential students across our country from continuing their education and earning a degree. As part of the uAspire First One Awards, uAspire will be featuring stories of individuals who are first-generation college graduates. Despite many challenges – often because of the high costs of college – they persevered and earned their college degree. Their stories show why it’s so important that education remains an affordable option to all, and how uAspire is committed to this effort.

The following story is about Magnolia Contreras, Director of Community Benefits at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. For 20 years, Magnolia has made a profound impact on the lives of many throughout Lynn and the Greater Boston area. Magnolia was recently named an “Emerging Leader” by the Boston Business Journal.

The vision of a college education was clear for Magnolia Contreras and her family. The reality, on the other hand, was more difficult to achieve.

Having been raised in the City of Lynn, Magnolia’s father worked hard to support the family and to help them integrate into the American culture without losing their own Dominican values.  As new immigrants, Magnolia’s parents were certain that their children were going to go to college. They just had no idea about how challenging this would be for Magnolia and for the entire family. Magnolia and her parents had to learn about the cost and the sacrifice needed for a degree.

Magnolia was a very strong student in high school. Her parents never doubted that she would go to college. But being new immigrants, they had no idea about the expense of applying for college, how complicated the process of getting into college is and the cost of a four year education.  Magnolia enrolled at Boston College – a tremendous privilege to end up at such a well-known and well-respected school.

While at BC, Magnolia realized that she was not fully prepared for college success. Growing up in Lynn, Magnolia didn’t receive the kinds of resources that other kids from more affluent suburbs received. So she had to learn what she didn’t know while under pressure to stay with the rest of the class.  Simultaneously, by her sophomore year at BC, the family realized that the funds that Magnolia’s family had saved for her education were spent and she still had two years left.  While struggling to keep pace academically, working part-time, feeling the increasing financial pressure that each semester brought and the fear of failing- Magnolia signed private loans in order to afford BC. Magnolia and her parents borrowed and borrowed to ensure that she completed college.

As Magnolia faced tough times each semester, she also knew that her opportunity wasn’t going to be squandered. She and her parents had simply worked too hard and sacrificed too much to not earn a degree. When Magnolia crossed the stage on graduation day, she felt a sigh of relief when she held her diploma in her hand. She succeeded despite the challenges.

Magnolia’s education at BC has been the foundation for everything in her career. On the surface, graduating from an institution like BC opens doors in powerful ways. As an immigrant, Magnolia had to learn about the network that exists at places like BC – a community of support and connections that other students had access to. Having grown up in a poor community, access to resources such as these proved invaluable for Magnolia’s life and career.

Magnolia’s experience also taught her that, in the end, the grade itself is not the most important part of a college education. She believes that people really care when students graduate- on time- and when they work hard to achieve the degree. With the challenges that Magnolia has overcome, she has shown how she’s been able to succeed – at school and in her career.


BA, Psychology, Boston College (1990)

MSW, Social Work, Simmons College (1998)

MBA, Suffolk University (2006)


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