Filipino immigrant overcomes self-doubt to graduate from Georgia Gwinnett College
Le Quang Greatzel Unabia, 26, of Norcross, grew up in Digos City on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. She was raised in a home of women – just her and her mother, grandmother and aunt - so she didn’t have to look far to see first-hand how strong a woman can be.
It was a hard-scrabble life at times for the four of them. Her father was a Vietnamese refugee who moved to America when Unabia was 10, leaving her mother, Annaliza, to largely make ends meet on her own. Annaliza would wake up at 3 a.m. and drive her tricycle into town to buy two baskets of bibingka – a sweet pastry made with coconut and flour – which she would take to the local marketplace to sell. On a good day she would earn a little more than two dollars, but that was enough.
“It showed me what women are capable of,” said Unabia. “Seeing how hard my mom worked just to get me through high school.”
Unabia graduated from high school, charged right into college in the Philippines and spent three years studying psychology.
“I did bad in college there. I just did enough to pass,” she said. “I never worked hard because I didn’t see any hope of changing our lives.”
That trajectory changed dramatically in 2016, when Unabia realized she could study in the U.S. as a permanent resident thanks to her dad, but she’d have to do it before she turned 21.
Her first plane ride, at 20 years old, was to Manilla to obtain biometrics and a medical exam. Her second plane ride was to Atlanta to move in with her father and continue her education in America.
“It was very hard for my mom,” said Unabia. “She tried to convince me to stay and just live a simple life with her. I told her, ‘You know what? I think I would rather regret going than regret not ever knowing what might have happened.’”
She moved in with her father and set about finding a college that fit her personality and ambition. She looked at larger schools, but their sheer size seemed daunting. A family friend suggested she look at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC).
“He said it might be easier to adjust on a smaller campus, where it wouldn’t be so overwhelming for me,” she said. “Looking back, I know he was right. I visited other schools and their campuses were massive! I don’t know how the ‘2017 me’ would have handled that.”
The act of returning to school in a foreign country filled Unabia with self-doubt, but her classmates and teachers at GGC rallied around her and proved it to be the perfect choice. For instance, when she was a sophomore, her car broke down and fellow students gave her rides for the entire academic year.
“GGC fosters a compassionate student community, and I am proud to say that I am a product of that community. I was only able to continue college because of my GGC friends,” she said.
Unabia’s life changed courses once again when some GGC advisors noticed she was attending STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) events by herself and suggested she join the Women in Technology (WIT) club.
“WIT really empowered me,” she said. “I didn't think I could do software development, but WIT showed me that maybe it was possible. I decided to give it a go — so I could prove to myself again that I am capable of doing things I previously thought I couldn't.”
She will graduate on Dec. 7 with a Bachelor of Science in information technology with a concentration in software development. For the next chapter, she hopes to find work as a back-end developer.
That’s not bad for a woman who was raised on a little more than two hard-earned dollars a day.
“I grew up in the hands of strong women,” said Unabia. “But it took me some time to figure out I am one of them myself. I realized greatness is not a person – it’s an action. For me, GGC became a catalyst for that action. For somebody like me, that was very important. GGC was the right place for me.”
Unabia will join more than 600 of her classmates at GGC's fall commencement, scheduled for 10 a.m., Dec. 7 at the Gas South Arena.