Featured Colleague: Cristina Balan Follows Her Heart to America

By Dani Moritz-Long

Born and raised in rural Romania — which was under the rule of the authoritarian, communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu until the uprising in 1989 — Student Services Advisor Cristina Balan remembers her childhood as something marked with fear, stagnation and hopelessness. But, she says, it wasn’t without light. Despite her grim surroundings, Cristina says her relationship with her grandfather proved paramount in her finding hope amidst the hopelessness.

“I was gifted the love of reading from my grandfather, who was a veteran of the second world war,” she said. “He found escape in the alternate universe of books. He started my reading journey with ‘Around the World in 80 days’ by Jules Verne when I was 5 years old.”

As a result, Cristina clung to literary escape throughout most of her life, including her time in a strict and rigid athletic boarding school where she was training as a potential Olympic gymnast. Her grandfather’s gift of adventure and hope also eventually led to the physical escape that landed her on the shores of America.

“Although communism had officially ended by the time I was 8, the effects still lingered, leaving the people with a sense of hopelessness and fear of change,” she said. “I longed for something better, so I decided to embark on a journey to the land of dreams and opportunity; I am so glad I followed my heart!”

In the next chapter of her life, Cristina called Orlando home  a stark contrast from her metaphorically grey upbringing.

“Living in Orlando seems like a permanent vacation to me,” Cristina said. “Orlando has everything I look for in a city: Perfect weather (I love the humidity), a beautiful tropical landscape and a rich diversity of culture.”

The city also helped her discover a new passion. After working in the hotel industry for 11 years, Cristina found herself ready for advancement and, while that didn’t ultimately play out the way she planned, it did elevate her career and her life.

“I decided to go back to school to pursue an MBA, but my previous Romanian college credits did not transfer, so I had to start college as a freshman,” she explained. “I believe things happen for a reason and, because I was starting from ground zero, I had the opportunity to change course and decided to leave the hotel industry and pursue a career in academia. I completed my associate degree in business at Valencia College, and I’m currently pursuing my Bachelor of Science in business administration at the University of Florida and hope to one day complete a graduate degree.”

Along the way, she found herself working at Valencia, where she now serves as a student services advisor.

“My role at Valencia is to help students realize their academic goals by guiding them from enrollment, through graduation and making their transition to and from Valencia as smooth and seamless as possible,” she said. “I love working and interacting with our students and quickly identifying what I can do to remove barriers and help them set and achieve their academic dreams. I also enjoy listening to their stories and watching them develop and surpass the goals they have set. From the freshman straight out of high school, to the transfer student and to the non-traditional adult student, each student has a story that is uniquely their own. Through my interaction with them, I have the privilege to hear these stories and identify the catalyst that will send them in the right academic direction.”

Commenting on her diligence and impact, Manager of Student Services Lauren Zanders said, “Cristina is an asset to the East Campus Answer Center team. She has made a successful practice of using her own personal and academic journey to encourage students through the admissions processes at Valencia while empowering them to be proactive about their future accomplishments.”

When Cristina isn’t busy transforming lives at Valencia, you can find her watching documentaries, experimenting with various cultural cuisines, traveling and, of course, reading. Inspired by her early introduction to literature, she also hopes to one day go backpacking around the world — perhaps following in the footsteps of the beloved character from “Around the World in Eighty Days,” Phileas Fogg.

Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s Values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for one year or more? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.

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