At age 34, Oscar Portillo is not your "typical" undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky. In fact, there is nothing very typical about this native of Mexico who walked across the stage at Rupp Arena Sunday, May 8, and received his marketing degree from the Gatton College of Business and Economics.
Twenty-one years ago, this promising young soccer player from Mexico was recruited to join an elite club team in Los Angeles. Only 13 at the time, Portillo played for four years while receiving educational instruction from tutors associated with the club. Then, at age 17, he sustained a serious ankle injury, ending his dream of playing as a professional.
An uncle (Juan) who lived in Lexington brought Portillo to Kentucky where he began working on a thoroughbred horse farm.
Several years later, Portillo became reacquainted with a young woman named Elvira whom he had first met while attending first grade back in his hometown of Aguascalientes. In 2004, Portillo and Elvira, a U.S. citizen and local restaurant manager, were married and now have three children.
Portillo did a little bit of everything on the farm, from cleaning stalls to grooming horses — you name it, he did it. Eventually, he rose to become farm manager, working 10-hour days from July to January, while being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week the rest of the year during foaling season.
Portillo said that he had an epiphany of sorts one morning during his early years on the farm.
"I was mucking stalls and suddenly looked around and thought, 'is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?'" Portillo said. "I decided right then and there, I needed to get more schooling, more education."
Determined to make things better for himself and his family, Portillo, who had learned to speak English during the four years he lived in California, studied hard and earned his high school GED. With the encouragement of his wife and the support of his farm employer, Portillo enrolled in Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC), part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. He started out by taking two classes per semester in the evening at BCTC's campus in Lexington, and also at the college's sites in Paris and Winchester, depending on the coursework being offered. In short order, Portillo increased his academic load to four classes a semester, still working full time on the farm and driving his two older children to school five mornings a week.
In 2014, Portillo, who credits his BCTC advisors and teachers for believing in him, graduated with his associate degree, compiling an overall GPA of 3.6. He applied to, and was accepted for admission, to several universities in Kentucky.
"I knew I wanted to major in business and the Gatton College was the best fit for me," Portillo said. "Being a first generation college student and knowing of UK's support through First Generation Initiatives made my decision an easy one."
The decision to attend UK may have been easy for him, but he found his first major exam in a management course to be anything but. Portillo failed the test miserably, yet was determined to learn from the experience.
"My teacher in the course, Dr. Gordon Holbein (senior lecturer in management) met with me and showed how I was looking at things too narrowly and trying to be perfect," said Portillo. "He encouraged me to look at the big picture and pay attention to more than business concepts, but to life concepts, as well. After that, I gained confidence and saw my hard work in and out of the classroom begin to pay off."
Having had the chance to be exposed to the major thoroughbred sales held in Lexington each year, Portillo was looking for a major to which he could apply his work experience, while gaining a more refined knowledge of principles and building a foundation for future career opportunities.
"I really am very grateful to my academic advisor in Gatton, Taurean Douglas," said Portillo. "He pointed me toward a major in marketing and it has been a great choice for me. I have been very happy. In addition, faculty members Adam Craig (assistant professor of marketing), Tereza Dean (assistant professor of marketing), and Holly Hapke (senior lecturer in marketing) have all been so helpful and supportive."
Earlier this spring, Portillo applied for a position with the Cintas Corporation's Louisville operation. After a series of in-depth interviews, he was hired as a production supervisor, a job he will begin a few weeks from now.
And, while he is very excited about the position, Portillo made it clear to his new bosses that he already has his eyes set on moving up in the company.
"I intend to make this just the beginning of a long, positive journey," Portillo said. "I want to contribute to the success of Cintas and really make a difference."
This ambitious young man is on a mission to dispel negative stereotypes that some Americans may have about people from his native country and other Hispanic immigrants.
"I want to show by example how much America means to me and how grateful I am for the opportunity to work here, gain an education, and make things better for me and my family," said Portillo. "It should not matter what country someone is born in, what matters is what a person does to make this nation a better place. It would be nice to see the nasty rhetoric in society toned down. The U.S. is a country where people from all nationalities should be judged on their merits, by their work and conduct, not by where they come from. The old saying, 'you can't judge a book by its cover,' is true."
Portillo's wife, Elvira, will be taking a well-earned break from her job, as he commutes from Lexington to his new job, at least in the short term.
"My wife has supported me so much during the past six years or so while I have been obtaining my higher education," said Portillo. "It's my turn to support her now."
As for achieving the milestone of graduating from UK, Portillo, who has become a big fan of American football to go along with soccer and horse racing, said, "It is very rewarding, yet humbling. It still seems unbelievable to me. There was a time not too long ago when a college degree seemed so out of reach for me."
Portillo, a U.S. resident who is in the process of earning his American citizenship, wanted to add one more thing.
"While I am the first in my family to graduate from college, I will not be the last," he said. "We want to do everything we can to make sure that our three kids (12-year-old son, 9-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old son) achieve this goal."
Oscar Portillo, UK class of 2016, is an inspiring example of what sacrifice, tenacity and hard work can do.