The first time David Roman met a politician, something funny happened to his face. It started twitching, unexpectedly and uncontrollably. The corner of his mouth jumped and quivered, but he managed to wrestle it into a smirk by the time someone snapped a picture. Today, he cherishes that photo, measuring the nervousness in a grin as the distance it took to get him where he is today – a college graduate with an unconventional past.
“That photo means a lot to me in a lot of ways,” Roman said. “That photo clearly shows how nervous I was. I had never experienced anything like that before. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a politician, this is the kind of person I want to grow up into.’”
The politician was U.S. Rep. David Price, stopping by to speak at Wake Tech Community College’s North Campus in 2014. At the time, Roman was a student ambassador for the school and involved in student politics. School president Stephen Scott made the introduction, not much more than a grip and grin, but Price’s staffers gave Roman their cards. One encouraged him to apply for an internship that summer in Washington.
A few weeks later, to Roman’s unbridled elation, he landed the gig. But then he started sweating. Often the thing about internships is they offer an opportunity to better your future, but may not help you buy a cup of coffee today. Roman quickly realized it would cost thousands to spend the summer working in Washington.
“When you have $50 on hand, yeah, not so much,” Roman said.
Unwilling to see him pass up a chance to work on Capitol Hill, officials at Wake Tech, where Roman had just graduated with a two-year associate’s degree, opened their hearts, wallets and closets for the cause of sending him to Washington.
He stayed with the Maryland parents of a Wake Tech administrator. The school raised incidental cash that would last him the summer, and Scott gave him several suits he no longer wore. Roman more than looked the Washington part, especially in a donated seersucker suit striped in blue, a breezy cloak of cool to brave the steamy D.C. swamp.
Now, Roman, 23, is back in Raleigh, a newly minted graduate of American University in Washington.
He’s eager to prove that the local investment from Wake Tech was worthwhile.
For some, college can be its own four-year bubble, a place to hide out from impending adulthood. Roman’s respite ended early. In his first semester at UNC Charlotte in 2012, the away-from-home distractions got the better of him and his grades took a blow. Just a few months after he’d left it, the Wakefield High graduate found himself back in Raleigh, a college dropout, unsure of himself and unclear what to do next.
His parents pushed for more school, Roman said, this time at Wake Tech. But he was reluctant, feeling it was a second-rate option rather than a second chance.
But what he found there, most of all, was a second wind. He started getting active in social groups on campus and became a senator in the Student Government Association. He was in the school’s Campus Crusade for Christ and made friends. He relied on rides from his parents, who would drop him off in the morning and pick him up in the evening, leaving hours of downtime that Roman said forced him to get out and meet people.
His activity got him noticed, Scott said.
“It was easy for him to make an impression,” Scott said. “I thought, that young man may have a future sometime. I liked the way he met and worked with people.”
Scott was one of several to write a letter of recommendation to go along with Roman’s internship application. Later, the community college president dug out some of his suits so Roman’s wardrobe would be more up to the standards of Capital Hill.
“We have a closet at the school for students so they have appropriate clothing for interviews or internships, but it’s mostly for female students,” Scott said. “David needed appropriate clothes to be in a congressman’s office. I thought, hey I’ll get him some suits and shirts and ties together. But he didn’t pick the suits I thought a younger guy like him would pick. He went for a blue seersucker suit of mine, which I just kind of threw in as a humorous thing.”
Scott said school officials wanted to pitch in because Roman had earned their respect as a student ambassador – a student who, among other duties, helps with visits by politicians and other prominent guests.
“I like people that are willing to step up and invest their time and effort before they ask the college to invest resources in them,” Scott said.
On the Hill
As a congressional intern, Roman said he mainly wrote memos and answered constituent calls from Price’s 4th District. He dispelled any myth of the job as coffee-fetching for the nation’s powerful.
“I never got anyone coffee,” Roman said. “I’m not sure that’s even a thing.”
When he wasn’t in the office, he was often around the city at networking events. Roman said he knew his time in D.C. had an expiration date, so he did everything he could to find another internship. He wasn’t yet ready to start his next phase of education, and he had no car. The D.C. metro offered him better mobility and the city itself more opportunities than returning to Raleigh would.
“Staying in D.C., that was the main thing,” Roman said. “My parents are Colombian and there’s a word in Spanish, I’m not sure there’s an exact English translation. ‘Berraquera.’ It’s basically the go-getter mentality. You’re going to do it no matter what.”
Sometimes timing plays a role in a city that runs on bureaucracy. Roman had networked all summer and applied to every Washington internship he could find, but just as he was about to begin work as a barista back in Raleigh, the Pretrial Services Agency offered him a lifeline and a five-month internship. Roman followed that up with a three-month stint at the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp.
Roman calls this his gap year, a year of unglamorous work just to stay in the District. He made money through a temp agency for law firms.
“It was a really humbling experience,” Roman said. “I was a mail clerk and the folder stamper at different law firms. They were actually really prominent law firms in D.C., but the people that worked there had been there for decades at times.
“Going to D.C. I had this image that it’s like a castle kind of place, everyone’s very well off,” Roman said. “But I realize there’s a lot of poverty and people struggle a lot in the city. I never would have thought that someone would have been a mail clerk for 40 years, but it showed me the realities of life, there are people from all walks of life.”
Roman himself was a bit of a rarity. He had just as many college credits as the other interns around him, but he didn’t meet any other community college students. Scott said Roman is the first congressional intern he knows of to come directly from Wake Tech.
Price’s office confirmed as much, and staffers said they’d like to see more community college interns. They’ve had them before, but it only happens once in awhile, said spokesman Lawrence Kluttz.
Roman had left Raleigh for D.C. in donated suits, but managed to stay there afloat of his own accord for a year. He then enrolled at American University and got back on track to get his bachelor’s degree in his adopted home.
“I feel like whatever you’re seeking is also seeking you; the law of attraction,” Roman said. “American was just that university that accepted me. ... I really grew to like D.C. a lot, it had become home at that point. I feel like I conquered it. I’m like, I spent a whole year in D.C., I can do this.”
To afford the security deposit for an apartment in D.C., Roman worked two weeks of construction back in Raleigh, getting up at 4 a.m. to meet his boss at 5 and be on a job site by 6. Ever the intern, he said his work was mostly odd jobs.
“It was terrible, so terrible,” Roman said. “We’d be in the sun all day, pouring cement, moving rocks, picking up nails. Non-stop nails.”
Roman settled in at American. He spent a summer as a public policy fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He took swing dance classes and learned to play the piano. He graduated from American in May and is back in Raleigh looking for sales jobs, saying politics may be in the future, but he needs to earn some money now.
It’s impossible not to learn something in college. At UNC Charlotte, Roman learned his limits. At Wake Tech, he learned redemption. And at American, he learned about himself.
It took five years and three different schools to get Roman to the point where he expected to be. But now that he’s done it, he said Wake Tech stands out as the pivotal point in the journey.
“What makes the experience at Wake Tech so special is it was unexpected,” Roman said. “I had this notion that community colleges were for second-rate students, they’re for people who don’t try hard. And that was extremely wrong. It was a transition phase for me – it went from me not having much hope in the future, from not being a good student to developing into a person who is empowered who can do things who is valued and has something to offer to the world. That transition, going from like 0 to 70 meant a lot more to me than going from 70 to 100 at American.”
After he graduated, Roman wrote an email to Wake Tech thanking the school for locking its fingers together and giving him a boost in life when he needed it most.
“I feel strong and confident that my past experiences will empower me to achieve anything I set my sights on,” Roman wrote. “You received this email because I deeply appreciate you and I earnestly want to give back.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson