Few people have a pivotal moment in life at just 7 years old.
But that’s when UConn senior Xavier Cole made a powerful promise to his older brother, Joey. If you adopt me, he told Joey, I will be the first in our family to graduate college; I will make something of my life.
“Look at me, I’m a first-generation college student, an African American, the son of an immigrant, a product of the foster-care system, my parents both died before I was 10,’’ Cole says. “And here I am—one in a million.’’
Cole will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in business, with a major in real estate and urban economic studies and a minor in professional sales leadership. Opting to graduate a semester early, Cole is taking 25 credits this fall and carrying a 3.7 GPA.
His friends describe him as outgoing, tenacious, and strategic. While juggling his coursework, he is also beginning his real estate career with Berkshire Hathaway in Cambridge, Mass., working as a waiter in a restaurant, and leading two campus organizations.
“You can make excuses, or you can make it happen. Adversity molds the man,’’ Cole, 21, says over a milkshake at Dog Lane Café in Downtown Storrs. “My brother said, ‘You can’t use your background as an excuse to fall victim or seek pity.’ I see what the world has to offer and I say, ‘Yes, that’s for me!’ ’’
Debbie Philips, administrative coordinator in the real estate program, says Cole’s leadership traits are admirable.
“Xavier is tenacious in his goals and has pursued his education and career with the same fierceness that he approaches life,’’ Philips says. “He is a determined young man that does not allow others to dictate who or what he is to become, but shapes and defines those things as he gleans and learns from his peers, mentors, colleagues, and those closest in his life. Xavier stands out to me because he chooses to be someone who would influence others.”
The Drive to Keep Moving
Despite the hardships that defined his early years, Cole isn’t bitter or hardened. Although he has suffered tragedies, he’s also benefitted from the generosity of hundreds of people. He chooses to focus on the positive.
His UConn admissions essay offered a perspective that few teenagers could deliver. It read in part:
“Had I known the last time I would hear from my father was when he was on a hospital bed hundreds of miles away, I would’ve kept the conversation going a little longer.
“Had I known my mother wasn’t going to return to the depressing, unwelcoming shelter home, I would’ve hugged her a little tighter,’’ he continued. “Had I known on my 10th birthday my mother would have been deported and it would be the last time I’d hear from her, I would have said, ‘I love you!’ once more.’’
By the time he was in second grade, Cole’s father, a nuclear technician in the U.S. Navy who served in the Persian Gulf War, had died. His mother, a native of the Azores in Portugal, was deported; she passed away soon after. He believes that to this day, his parents keep a watchful eye over him.
Meanwhile, young Cole and his older brother Roy were bouncing between foster homes, often getting in trouble for fighting.
“I didn’t care about anything,’’ recalls Cole. “My world wasn’t right.’’
That’s when his half-brother, Joey Fula, stepped in. Only 21 himself, Fula and his girlfriend agreed to raise the siblings. Life improved and the trio remain close today.
Cole attended a charter school with a dress code and strict rules. He wasn’t an angel. “I got in a fair amount of trouble. In the 7th grade, the dean said I was one of the worst kids to come to the school. I laughed and said I wanted to be No. 1!,’’ he recalls. “I had so many detentions—I was a chatty kid. But I played sports, I was smart, and I got straight As.’’
Cole, who is 5-foot-6, became captain of the track team, the baseball team, and the football team at his Salem, Mass., high school. He would train every day at 6 a.m.—not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
“I always had the drive to keep moving and be the person I wanted to be,’’ he says. “First I do my research and figure out what it takes. Then I just do it.’’
Do What’s Necessary; Never Look Back
Cole knew he needed to select a major that would provide a job after college, and he originally planned to become an athletic trainer. He had a full ride to UMass and a great opportunity at Merrimack, but when he drove to UConn, he knew he was meant to be a Husky.
“I just knew I should be here…the feel, the infrastructure, the resources. It was a whole new world for me at 17. I wanted the challenge of finding my way,’’ he says.
Within days, he had made good friends and found a new home with fraternity Alpha Delta Phi, whose mission is to provide personal growth for its members. He is president of both the Real Estate Society and the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), despite having no Latino blood.
“I think that my leadership position and comfort in ALPFA has come about because of my upbringing around Latino culture. My high school had a strong Hispanic population, and many of my childhood best friends spoke Spanish at home. I lived in that foster home at 5 years old with only Spanish speakers,’’ he says. “I also just extremely love and appreciate the culture. I find myself really enjoying the Latino music, food, and community. ‘’
Seanice Austin, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the School of Business, says Cole was instrumental in developing and formulating the path of the chapter over the past year. “He is committed, driven and focused,’’ she says. “As president, Xavier exemplifies the qualities of leadership such as being outspoken, humble, and taking a collaborative approach to projects.’’
Cole always managed to keep his priorities straight, his friends say.
“One of the things I admire most about Xavier is his ability to do what is necessary and never look back. Throughout his life, Xavier has faced roadblock after roadblock. Instead of letting these things weigh him down, he uses them to motivate himself and the people around him. He is mature beyond his years,’’ says UConn senior Tom Philipson.
“On weekends, all of Xavier’s friends would go out and Xavier would drive to Boston to go to meetings and business workshops. Even with the pressure of his friends to take it easy for a weekend and hang out with us, he stayed focused on his goals and kept working,’’ he says. “Xavier’s path to success hasn’t been easy and I’m sure in his own mind he is nowhere near satisfied with what he has accomplished, yet but I am certain that he will do whatever it takes to become a successful businessman.’’
GoFundMe Campaign Raised Tuition—in Two Days
One of the challenges Cole has faced is the cost of paying for his education. He has received several UConn scholarships, and recently received a $10,000 Schurgin Family scholarship from the International Council of Shopping Centers Foundation.
Perhaps no experience was as moving as having a semester of tuition paid through a GoFundMe campaign in 2018. When a private loan fell through, Cole had only days to raise tuition. His friends created the fundraising campaign and within two days, 211 people—friends, former teachers, even complete strangers–had donated more than $10,000. Cole was even interviewed on a local newscast.
“I’m very thankful to all of them,’’ he says.
Ready for the Future
As a college student, Cole started a painting business through Young Entrepreneurs Across America. He learned to run a business from the ground up.
“I started with zero clients, no reputation, and I’d never picked up a paint brush,’’ he says. He learned how to budget, market, manage a team—and even how to clean up a spilled 5-gallon bucket of paint. “We did over $60,000 in sales that summer. It really defined me as a professional. You’re responsible for the business. I knocked on doors to drum up business until dusk. I learned to set clear expectations with employees.’’
That experience will serve him well in his new job as a real estate agent. He already has a strategy to begin building his reputation.
“I like to set my own rules and write my way out,’’ he says. “Principles take you so far and such a long way. I tell myself, ‘Don’t fall victim. Don’t fall victim. Just keep moving. You’ll get there eventually.’ ’’
“My ultimate goal is to grow myself and my entrepreneurial spirit,’’ he says. “From the business school, I see how many influential people are around us. It shows me how much I can be.’’
In his characteristic way, Cole has definite plans for the future. He’s planning to attend graduate school to continue studying real estate and sustainable development. Ultimately, he would like to become a real-estate developer and be able to create change, literally from the ground up.
“I also hope to help one or two people find a nice spot in life,’’ he says.
He is also planning a future with his long-time girlfriend Madison Parshley.
“I was voted most unforgettable in high school, but at UConn I found out who I was; who Xavier Stephen Cole was,’’ he says. “I knew my choice was to be a college grad or live the same life. Some of my friends just didn’t go for more.’’
Cole says he is willing to share his very personal story because he knows how much it can influence others—particularly students who are struggling.
“You’ve got to set yourself apart and make the most of your time here at UConn,’’ he says. “That’s what I did!’’