Thalia Chaves and her parents, Elizete and Nelson, on campus. (Lee Pellegrini)

Resilience and resolve

First-gen graduate Thalia Chaves first set her sights on BC at age 5

When she was five years old, Thalia Chaves stood on her tip-toes in a Boston College classroom so she could draw on the blackboard, and declared that, someday, this was where she wanted to go to school.

On May 20, Chaves stood tall at the Commencement Exercises in Alumni Stadium—only a few hundred yards from that classroom—as a member of the BC Class of 2024 recognized for her civic engagement activities, and experienced the additional joy of being the first in her family to graduate from college.

There are thousands of graduation stories among American colleges and universities every spring, many sharing similar themes, contours, and characteristics. But the commonalities are no less compelling, especially for those who live the tale.

Chaves—who majored in International Studies—is the oldest child of immigrants, neither of whom attended college but felt strongly that their children should have the opportunity. Her four years at the Heights had the ebbs and flows familiar to many undergraduates, and often shared by their families: anticipation; struggle and self-doubt; resilience and resolve; and ultimately, realization of one’s abilities, talents, and vocation.

“My acceptance to BC was one of my lightbulb memories with my parents,” said the Saugus, Mass., native earlier this month, as she and her parents, Elizete and Nelson, looked back on her BC years. “During my time here, I truly bought into the Jesuit motto of ‘cura personalis.’ Because of all my parents’ hard sacrifices, I’ve tried to take advantage of every single opportunity available to me at BC. I had to leave here with everything I could to ‘set the world aflame.’”

My acceptance to BC was one of my lightbulb memories with my parents. During my time here, I truly bought into the Jesuit motto of ‘cura personalis.’ Because of all my parents’ hard sacrifices, I’ve tried to take advantage of every single opportunity available to me at BC. I had to leave here with everything I could to ‘set the world aflame.'
Thalia Chaves '24

The prelude to Chaves’s BC story was the odyssey of Elizete, a native of Brazil, and Nelson, who was born in the United States but spent almost all of his youth in Portugal before returning to the U.S. They met, they married, and just before Thalia was born decided to take a chance and started a flooring business. It took long hours and lots of energy, but sustained the family.

Nelson and Elizete’s flooring business had been working on numerous projects throughout BC’s campus in the 2000s. One sunny day, Nelson came to BC to check on his employees’ progress in one of the campus buildings, bringing along Elizete and five-year-old Thalia. Elizete and Thalia patiently waited in a Carney Hall classroom while Nelson spoke to his employees.

“I was very little then, but I do recall coming to campus,” recalled Thalia. “My eyes were wide open. I had never seen such a beautiful place before.”

While they waited for Nelson to return, Elizete entertained her little girl. “I told Thalia that I had once taught kids who were about her age, and I began to write on the blackboard to show her what a teacher does. She came up to the blackboard and took a piece of chalk, and even though she had to stand on her tip-toes, she tried to write, too.”

Right about then, Nelson returned. “I saw Thalia writing, and kneeled down next to her and asked, ‘Do you want to come here to Boston College and study someday?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do!’”

 Childhood pronouncements can easily be forgotten, and as Thalia grew older the memory of that day at Carney came up only occasionally and off-handedly. But when she began to consider colleges, BC was first on her list.

“It all just clicked for me,” said Thalia. “I went to Catholic schools throughout childhood, so that was a factor. But as I learned more about BC, I felt like this was where I needed to be, because it was all about educating the whole person, and challenging you in different ways. I thought BC would have many amazing opportunities that would help me get anywhere I wanted to go and help me discover who I am and what my place in the world could be. And of course, today I know it to be true.”

Her parents supported her desire. “With the right knowledge,” said Nelson, “you can do anything.”

Thalia is frank about the early part of her undergrad years. “I had ‘imposter syndrome,’ and was convinced I didn’t deserve to be here. I didn’t get the same good grades as I did in high school. I didn’t try as hard to get involved. I spent a lot of time in my room—my roommate actually moved out a couple of months in so I was by myself.”

Nelson and Elizete knew their daughter was having a tough time, and while neither had attended college, they saw something familiar in her ordeal. “I struggled being away from my family when I first came to America,” said Elizete. “It’s a difficult process to go through. We knew we had to be there for her, even just to listen.”

Living close to home helped, and Thalia could come home for a restorative weekend, said Nelson, “but in the end, she always went back to campus.”

Thalia hung in there, finding fulfillment in her classes, such as Perspectives, where she made friends (“Who are still friends,” she added) and found a mentor in Associate Professor of Theology Ronald Tacelli, S.J. She landed an internship in Dublin through the BC Office of Global Education, where she worked on housing provision systems reform in Ireland during the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Her self-confidence grew markedly.

Her parents’ emphasis on the importance of seeking community and opportunity helped motivate Thalia to work as program assistant for International Studies and on the leadership council for the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action. The latter role was particularly meaningful to her because “it touched on all the things I’m most passionate about: access to opportunity, especially for less privileged people and sustainable communities.”

Her activities with the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society directed Thalia’s gaze toward the future. She attended the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt and served as president of the institute’s Student Advisory Board, which helped her build an interest in climate change issues. Next month, she will start work at the Conservation Law Foundation; eventually, she plans to attend law school.

Thalia was surprised but gratified to learn that she had been selected for the University’s Ever to Excel Robert A. Sherwood Civic Engagement Award, which she received last month at a ceremony attended by her parents and younger brother.

“Winning the award felt like a coming-full-circle moment,” said Thalia. “I’d been active like that in high school, and though it took me a while, I was glad to find my way at BC. I think it’s something I can take with me.”