One Graduate Student’s Inspiring Journey from Venezuela to Georgia Tech
“I had prepared my whole life to seize opportunities, but there were none to be found.” Growing up in Venezuela, Kenia Way had to make a change if she wanted to have a chance at a better future. Seven years ago, she made the difficult decision to leave her home country and move to the United States.
“After leaving my country, I was determined to find a new career path that could provide me with skills that could be applied in endless industries,” said Way. “Data was the obvious choice.”
Way’s journey from Venezuela to Georgia Tech graduate was a rocky one. She persisted through the ups and downs, and in Spring 2023, Way earned her master’s degree in analytics from Georgia Tech.
Growing up in Venezuela
Way grew up in a stunning coastal area of Venezuela, surrounded by beautiful beaches and friendly people.
“It was almost like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, one of those places where time seems to stand still and the spirit of the town remains unchanged,” said Way. “We grew up on organic food–coconut, plantain, mango, and lots of fish.”
Good education was hard to come by, but Way was fortunate to have a mother who went above and beyond to give Way every opportunity she could.
By the time Way was 17, she was ready to leave town and pursue an engineering degree at the top university in the country.
Challenges in Pursuing Education and Career in Venezuela
The year Way was accepted into college to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering, the former president, Hugo Chavez, fired thousands of employees from the state oil company on national television after a series of strikes.
“This represented almost 50% of the state oil company’s personnel, and it set a very clear and divisive tone that was starting to shape what I later understood to be the culture of our society,” said Way.
Way and her peers juggled classes and exams inside the classrooms and social conflicts and persecution outside of the college.
“We quickly realized that there were going to be fewer opportunities available by graduation time as more private companies were leaving the country,” said Way. “It was a challenging and uncertain environment, but we did our best to stay focused on our goals. I remember my mom and sister always liked the quote, ‘If you change the way you see your life, the way you see your life will change.’ This helped me stay focused on the life I wanted instead of what was going on around me at that time.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, Way began a career in the oil and gas industry that spanned nearly 10 years. During that time, she also earned a graduate degree in statistics. Despite her education and experience, Way’s salary wasn’t enough to support her mother and extended family.
“To make matters worse, my friends were being kidnapped and their families couldn’t even afford to pay the ransom to save their lives,” said Way. “Sadly, most people in my community didn’t have the means to provide for their families and were living in constant fear of being robbed or even killed for something as small as a cellphone or a pair of shoes.”
Leaving Venezuela and Starting a New Life
Way made the difficult decision to leave Venezuela.
I felt powerless to make a difference if I stayed, and it was frustrating to see that there were no opportunities for growth or advancement in my career back home,” said Way. “I had prepared my whole life to seize opportunities, but there none to be found. That’s why I decided to leave. I wanted to find a safer place to live and work where I could provide for my loved ones and have a chance at a better future.
Way felt it was time to escape the economic and social collapse of her country.
“I love my hometown and my home country,” said Way. “It was heartbreaking to leave behind my life, my land, and my beloved family and friends. I needed to create new opportunities for growth and find ways to support my family back home.”
After moving to the United States, Way wanted to expand her skill set to access more opportunities outside of the volatile oil industry. She taught herself programming and volunteered with small startups in exchange for mentorship and hands-on projects. Eventually, she decided it was time to obtain a formal education and become part of a community of analysts, so she pursued her master’s degree at Georgia Tech.
Juggling Work, Family, and Education
During Way’s time at Tech, she juggled work and family life. Since 2020, Way has been the director of the Houston Food Bank’s data department. She also has had two babies since starting at Tech.
“I learned very early on that being organized and managing my time well was a key to my success, so I took that very seriously,” said Way.
Sometimes, no matter how much you plan, the universe has a plan of its own.
“When my first son was born, he arrived a little earlier than expected and right in the middle of midterms that semester,” said Way. “Two days after he was born, I took the test, but I was in so much pain. All I could focus on was my baby crying for mommy. Unfortunately, I failed it pretty badly. I ended up dropping the class that semester. When I retook it later, I did much better.”
When Way’s second baby came along, she decided this time to take a pause from school during the semester so she wouldn’t put herself or the new baby under unnecessary stress.
“There were some hard times,” said Way. “My husband is such an ally and always gave me confidence and encouragement. The lack of time and headspace to be present as a calm, balanced partner really tested the strength of our marriage. Life is full of learning opportunities, and I’m doing my best to learn from all of them.”
After graduating, Way plans to use her extra time to reflect on all aspects of her life, seek knowledge, help others, and celebrate with loved ones.
“One immigration process, two pregnancies, and one global pandemic made my experience more challenging, but the content, teachers, community, and my commitment to invest in my education made it possible for me to keep trying,” said Way. “I am so proud that I didn’t give up.”