FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Instead of one family, Manuela Cabal Carmona now has four.
First, there are the professors and faculty members at Indiana Tech who welcomed her with open arms.
Next, her soccer teammates who keep her smiling.
Third, her boyfriend's family who made sure she never spent a holiday alone.
Fourth and most important is the family she left behind in Colombia when she came to Fort Wayne in 2010.
"My family in Colombia, they are still the best," she told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1gaJ7hp ). "There's nothing like my mom. She's my one and only."
On Saturday, all four families will celebrate as she graduates from Indiana Tech with a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering.
Cabal Carmona, 22, will be among nearly 700 Indiana Tech graduates who will walk across the stage Saturday at Memorial Coliseum.
It's a moment they've long awaited and the first time her parents, Monica and Pedro, will be visiting their daughter in Fort Wayne together.
"I'm so excited to see them," Cabal Carmona said. "I can hardly wait."
Four years ago, Cabal Carmona wasn't sure she was going to make it through her first semester of college.
After spending nearly 24 hours on a plane, she arrived in Fort Wayne, eager to start her classes but scared and sad to leave her family behind in Colombia.
"My family means everything to me," she said. "The people on the plane with me probably think I'm being forced to leave the country, the way that I cry. Even now that I've done it a few times, I just bawl."
Cabal Carmona was raised in Cali, whose nearly 3 million residents make it Colombia's third-largest city.
She graduated from an American-run high school in Colombia with dual diplomas - one for the United States and the other for her home county.
She began learning English at age 5 and said she always knew she'd be coming to the U.S. for college, as her parents had.
"My parents are both from different cities in Colombia, but they met at Louisiana State University," she said. "They came all the way here and then met and moved home."
When she wasn't busy studying, Cabal Carmona found herself on the soccer field - a sport she hoped would help her find a way into an American college.
"I knew I wasn't good enough for a D-I (Division I) school, but I knew I wanted to play when I got here," she said.
She was recruited by Indiana Tech and came to visit during her junior year of high school.
"I knew if I was going to be so far from home, I would need to find a good group of people," Cabal Carmona said. "And I found that here."
Leaving home was difficult, especially because she spent nearly every weekend with extended family and most weekdays with her mom, dad and sister, Mariana, now 18.
"Family is a huge thing in Colombia," she said. "It's really the only thing that matters."
Although she busied herself adjusting to American food, English slang and the significantly colder climate, her family was always on her mind.
"I was so homesick, I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the first month," she said.
But four years later, as she readies herself for graduation, Cabal Carmona can't believe how quickly the time passed.
She settled in, made friends, played dozens of soccer games and met her boyfriend, Jason Souder, of Fort Wayne.
She also worked as a volunteer coach for Canterbury Middle School's girls soccer team, was a student assistant and summer intern in Indiana Tech's law school and was a lab technician in the Bard Life Science Laboratory.
Jack Phlipot, associate professor of biomedical engineering and program coordinator at Indiana Tech, said Cabal Carmona has a great sense of humor and is always enthusiastic in her pursuit of education.
"She also has a passion for helping those around her with their educational journey," Phlipot said.
"Her work ethic, determination, knowledge and passion for the medical industry set her apart from her classmates. I would appreciate having more students like her in my program."
And Cabal Carmona's enthusiasm and hard work has paid off. She has earned the highest grade-point average in the nine years the biomedical engineering degree program has existed at Indiana Tech.
"My parents have always taught me about the importance of a strong work ethic," Cabal Carmona said. "It's part of who I am."
Before she knew it, she was taking her last round of finals.
"Those four years, they went by so fast. I can't believe that I'm going to graduate already," she said.
Cabal Carmona said she plans to stay in Indiana and pursue a law degree, but she hasn't decided whether to continue her studies at Indiana Tech's law school or attend Valparaiso University.
Once she's obtained a law degree, she plans to stay in the United States to practice law but said she might later return to Colombia to serve underprivileged people.
"I've always been privileged and had a lot of support from my family, my friends, everyone," she said.
"So now I want to help people."
Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net