The man who went to college on Mars

Piñón has found plenty he likes about Grenoble

Colorado Academy French teacher Dr. Brigitte Debord likes to say her former student, Hernaldo Piñón, is attending college “on Mars.”

“I say to him, do you feel like you are on Mars now?” she says. “Because yes, you are.”

Piñón smiles in response. “It feels like Mars is the norm,” he says. “I just got used to it.”

To be sure, Piñón is not on Mars. No, he is at the Université Grenoble Alpes in Grenoble, a city in southeastern France, which was home to the 1968 Olympics. A first-generation college student, he is studying linguistics in his third language—not for just a semester or year abroad, but as a French student completing his college degree in France. Arguably, his journey to get there was nearly as arduous as a trip to Mars.

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong and not because of anything he did,” Debord says. “This kid, his nickname should be ‘Resilience.’ He managed to go to college in a country he had never been to, a continent he has never visited—it was just extraordinary to embrace that challenge.”

Piñón receiving his diploma from Head of School Dr. Mike Davis

‘I just didn’t want the regular American experience’

Piñón enrolled at CA as a Sixth Grader, with help from The Challenge Foundation, an organization that works with outstanding partner schools to help ambitious, hard-working students advance academically. As a new student, he had to pick a language to study. Spanish would have been the easy road, since it was his first language. Instead, he chose French.

He admits that he was just an average student in the early years, but by the time he was a Junior, Piñón told Debord he would like to take AP French in his Senior year. “I told him he had a lot of talent, but he would really have to step up his effort,” Debord says. “And that’s exactly what he did.”

Working independently of his CA classwork, Piñón started studying for the single test he would have to pass to go to college in France, the Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française—awarded by the French Ministry of Education, certifying the French language skills of a non-French candidate. In fall 2017, he passed the “DELF” test on his first try, a feat unheard of for a 17-year-old American who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household.

With the test under his belt and his acceptance at CU Boulder in his back pocket, Piñón began applying to French universities. But why take this harder road? After all, he had never even left the country, except for one CA trip to Cuba. “I just didn’t want the regular American experience,” Piñón says simply. There was also another huge advantage in his eyes. He could earn his diploma in linguistics in three years. And his tuition? It is $200 a year. Yes, you read that correctly. He is paying $200 in tuition, total, for his first year of college.

‘I just remember what it took to get here’

Hernaldo Piñón and Dr. Brigitte Debord met over coffee when he was home on his winter break.

Over coffee on his December break, Piñón had a confession. “I’ve matured a lot in the last year,” he says. “I’m more patient and much better at dealing with bureaucracy.”

That crash course in bureaucracy started when he read his emailed acceptance to a French university in a Fruita, Colo. parking lot as he was driving back from Interim on the Green River. There was never any doubt in his mind that he would go. “I didn’t want to look back and be angry at myself for not doing it.”

But long before he got on the plane to head to France, his problem-filled journey began. Processing his application to the university had been delayed because of a strike, so he didn’t hear until early June, long after his classmates had committed to schools. When he received the green light, he had to immediately get a long-term visa to France, which meant a trip to the Los Angeles consulate. But the consulate website was new, filled with glitches, and he couldn’t get an appointment. With just a few weeks left before the start of school, he finally traveled to Los Angeles, only to discover he needed two passport pictures when he only had one—so in the middle of his appointment he raced up the street to a Walgreens for more photos.

The consulate took possession of his passport to process the visa, which meant he had to get a same-day second passport at a regional passport office in Aurora, Colorado. His application to live in a university dormitory arrived a day late, leaving him temporarily homeless. Airbnb came to the rescue, which is how he came to spend the first semester living in a rented room, his first friend the landlady’s cat, “Choupette.” Finally, at the beginning of the second semester, he moved into a dormitory.

“Every step there was an issue, so I’m surprised I actually made it,” Piñón says. “I had to learn to deal with things myself, so on days when it’s hard, I just remember what it took to get here.”

‘It’s hard to picture myself somewhere else’

Piñón says the first semester “flew by.” He took 10 classes, entirely taught in French, each of which met for two hours once a week, including Italian, Lexicology, Morphology, Development of Speech, Introduction to Linguistics, a Writing class, a course in Francophone Culture, and a course titled simply, “The Universe.”

“That was a tough one, because it was a lecture class with 300 students in it,” Piñón says. “The professor talked so fast about relativity and calculus in French—I had to make sure I sat in the front row so I could follow him.”

Most of the fulltime foreign students he has met come from French-speaking countries like Cameroon and Senegal. When he meets new friends, they assume he is from either England or Spain. When they find out he is American, they assume he is only there to study for a semester. He has met no other Americans enrolled for a degree at the university.

While he misses his CA friends, he loves being in Grenoble, where he can walk or ride public transit wherever he wants to go. Occasionally, as he walks around, it suddenly hits him, “Wow, I am actually living in France.” He has started to travel in France and in Italy, where he has the chance to practice Italian, his fourth language.

Debord can relate to what her former student has accomplished because she came to the United States from France for her graduate degree. “My English when I got here was better than his French when he got to France,” she says. “Nothing really prepares you to live in a foreign country. What he has done is amazing.”

Piñón will return to Denver next summer to work at the very popular Little Man Ice Cream. His family still thinks what he is done is “crazy.” But he is determined. He fully expects that he will complete his degree in 2021 in Grenoble, because, as he puts it, “Now it’s hard to picture myself somewhere else.”