School daze: Now an Edgewood Biz School Distinguished Alumnus, Enzo Ciarletta took an unusual path to academic excellence

Enzo Ciarletta isn’t your typical first-grade dropout. Indeed, he’s accumulated a wealth of educational laurels – and life lessons – since he unilaterally, and without the knowledge of his old-school Italian immigrant mother, took a two-week hiatus from school at the tender age of 6, having decided that the educational system just wasn’t for him.

“I was born in Italy, came here when I was 3-1/2, so when I started kindergarten at 5, I didn’t speak any English at all, because at home my parents and my grandparents spoke Italian,” said Ciarletta, a recent recipient of the Edgewood College School of Business Distinguished Alumni Award. “So kids would make fun of me because I was different; I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, and they definitely couldn’t understand me. So when I was in first grade, based on my experience in kindergarten, I decided to just quit school.”

Ciarletta spent the next two weeks bumming around his Melrose Park neighborhood, dodging adults’ questions and relying on the tight-lipped beneficence of a local arcade owner, who gave the wayward 6-year-old quarters for pinball, thinking it was funny that such a young kid could get away with ditching school for so long.

“[K]ids would make fun of me because I was different; I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, and they definitely couldn’t understand me. So when I was in first grade, based on my experience in kindergarten, I decided to just quit school.” – Enzo Ciarletta

That didn’t last long, of course.

“My mom, she spoke only Italian, and every day she would ask me how school was and what I learned, and I basically just made stuff up,” said Ciarletta. “And in the meantime, the school was trying to call to find out what was going on. … They called the house, my mom was the only one home, and she answered the phone, but unless you spoke Italian, she couldn’t really communicate with you, so it took the school about a week to find somebody who actually spoke fluent Italian to call my mom and say, ‘Hey, where’s Enzo?’ And of course my mom said, ‘What do you mean? He’s at school.’ And they kind of filled her in on the fact that I hadn’t been at school.

“So that day when I got home from school, it kind of went the same normal path, and she asked me how school was and how’s everything going, what I learned, and I made up some story, and she pretty much let me have it, as you might expect an old-school Italian woman to do. It wasn’t pretty.”

Lessons learned

Ciarletta tells this story not just to emphasize the importance of sticking with education, though that’s a lesson he’s learned both through experience and the guidance of his mom and dad, who managed to complete only first and second grade, respectively, during the chaos of World War II. He also uses the story to communicate the value of service to others – something that has become a guiding theme of his life.

After Ciarletta went AWOL in first grade, his teacher took him aside and asked him why he was skipping school. Ciarletta told her that kids were picking on him, in part because his Italian lunch of salami, cheese, bread, and olives seemed strange to the other kids. She took Ciarletta under her wing, buying him “normal” lunches and using the lunch hour to tutor him in math, reading, and English.

“The thing I remember was that by the end of the year, I was actually ahead of everybody else in math,” said Ciarletta.

Today, Ciarletta is a long way from the confused, scared kid who simply couldn’t brook school one day longer. A 1997 graduate of Edgewood College’s MBA program, Ciarletta is the IT manager at CUNA Mutual Group’s Customer Contact Technologies group. That would seem to offer enough of a workload for many people, but Ciarletta also serves as a volunteer firefighter in Middleton, is on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters, is president of his homeowners association, and runs a business called Reliable Property Management, Inc., which he founded in 1992.

He also spent 17 years with TDS Telecom and more than 20 years with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, serving in the first Gulf War and retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer-3.

In fact, he credits his Marine Corps experience with putting him on a course for educational achievement – even though, ironically, he dropped out of college to join the military.

“I wasn’t that interested in school, I was doing very poorly in school, and so I decided to drop all my classes and go to the Marines, thinking at that point that, hey, school really wasn’t for me, I just wasn’t smart enough or good enough to do it,” said Ciarletta. “And then when I went to the Marines, they basically changed that. … I did all my work, and I ended up being No. 1 in my class, in my initial schooling in the Marines, and that really gave me the confidence that I could do it, because there were a lot of kids in that class who were much smarter than me, but what I learned was, do the best you can; nothing replaces hard work.”

Despite having shown a lackluster commitment to education up until that point, Ciarletta excelled in community college and at Northeastern Illinois University, garnering mostly A’s the rest of the way.

“I remember bringing my first report card home from college and showing my mom, and she literally just did not believe me,” said Ciarletta. “She’s like, ‘an A? No. You must have talked to somebody or did something or something was fixed,’” said Ciarletta. “And I’m like, ‘No, Mom, I really did.’ But that kind of set me on the course of knowing that if I did my best and tried as hard as I possibly could, even though I wasn’t the smartest or the strongest or the fastest, I still would do really well.”

In fact, Ciarletta did so well that when he was looking into pursuing his MBA, he had his pick of either the UW Executive MBA program or Edgewood College. He chose Edgewood because he thought it would offer a more intimate educational experience.

“I went to Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago – a very large school with big classes – and I was looking for a little bit different experience, maybe a little bit smaller school with more personalized education,” said Ciarletta.

If that hearkens back to his experience with his first-grade teacher, who sat Ciarletta down and guided him through a rough time, it may not be a coincidence. And it’s certainly no accident that Ciarletta is now giving back through both community service and his work in his field.

“That’s probably the thing I love most is being able to actually help folks and have them kind of appreciate something maybe I built or delivered or helped them with or accomplished,” said Ciarletta. “Those are the kinds of things that motivate me, and when I think about my IT career, that’s pretty much all about building software and delivering functionality to our business, so it really fits in line with just me.”

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