IOS Developer Alex Paul Shares His Incredible Immigration Story

Alex Paul immigrated to the United States at age 19 with barely enough money to make ends meet. But the St. Lucia native — whose passion and drive is evident in every aspect of his life — wasted no time planting the seeds for success.

Over the course of the next 20 years, Paul (now 40) has climbed his way up from construction worker to software developer. In June, he’ll join thousands of coders and creators at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in New York City to present his next big project, an education app to help his son (a special needs student) learn math.

Paul, who currently teaches IOS Development to minorities at a nonprofit educational institution, tells PEOPLE, “It’s so surreal. It’s one of those moments in life where you’ve worked so hard and the puzzle finally starts coming together. People tend to say it’s luck but at the end of the day, it’s just reaping the benefits of the hard work you’ve put in.”

As a kid growing up in the Caribbean, Paul found his niche in math and science. So, when he got to the United States, Paul knew exactly what the first step in pursuing his American Dream would be: earning a college degree in computer science. He finally saved up enough money to enroll at Borough Manhattan Community College — thanks to a construction job with his cousin — but was soon confronted with the reality of higher education in America.

“I got an associate’s degree, [but] I had to go back into construction because I didn’t have enough money to continue,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “It’s really expensive, especially for international students.”

The devastating news was just one of many obstacles Paul encountered (and swiftly conquered) on his journey to success.

A few years later, he re-enrolled in college — this time at the New York Institute of Technology where he was awarded a partial scholarship. After watching his first chance at earning a four-year degree slip through the cracks, Paul took full-advantage the second time around.

“International students tend to work harder because we know what it took to get to that point in life,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “Studies were a priority for me. It wasn’t about going out and partying. It was about doing the best I could and taking as many credits as I could possibly afford. I took 18 credits per semester, and I even took summer classes to accelerate the program.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004 only to be hit with another major roadblock. Paul didn’t have a green card or work authorization papers, so he couldn’t apply for tech jobs (although, with a college degree in hand, he was perfectly qualified).

That is, until Apple released the first iPhone in 2007. Paul remembers being, “blown away” by the fact that it allowed users to write software from their own homes. In 2012, while still working in construction, Paul noticed an unnecessary inconvenience in his day-to-day job: he had to lug around heavy paint buckets and test colors one by one every time he needed to touch-up wall paint.

“I had a problem, so I went into the app store to see if an app that keeps an inventory of the paint colors you used existed,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “Nothing came up.”

Rather than wait around for someone else to solve it, Paul took matters into his own hands. He taught himself coding and created an app called “What Paint.” His development turned a profit, but it would be another two years before Paul would finally receive a green card and land a tech job.

When that day finally came in 2014 (almost 10 years after his college graduation) Paul says he had no problem finding a job.

“My employer saw my passion and the initiative I had to create the app,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “He really loved that and hired me basically on the spot.”

Today, Paul is focused on giving back. The classes he teaches are filled with 18 to 25-year-old students he relates to — many are immigrants, minorities or people facing financial hardship.

“I know first-hand how it is,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “My goal is to get them jobs and help them have fulfilling lives. I always tell them that we’re a family.”

Aside from being a parent, a mentor and an IOS app developer, Paul is also a fitness fanatic who’s in the midst of training for a half Ironman triathlon.

The secret to balancing it all? “Most days I get up at 3 a.m. just to get more work done.”

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