Friends remember Cisneros '99 -- one of College's finest

by Tara Kyle | 10/29/01 6:00am

(Editor's note: This is the first article in a series profiling the Dartmouth victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy)

If you talk to anyone who knew Juan Cisneros '99, one feature comes up in refrain: an infectious smile that never seemed to leave his face.

At 24, Cisneros is by far the youngest Dartmouth graduate lost on Sept. 11 -- barely past commencement and just sampling his own potential.

A native Guatemalan who immigrated with his family to Escondido, California at the age of four, Cisneros was working at financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit.

By all accounts, he was an exceptional personality.

"He's probably the kind of guy any human being would have been privileged to know and privileged to have as a friend," Roham Rafat '99 said, describing Cisneros as having a "blind love" for all he met.

"He was always trying new things, and in everything he did, he was incredibly happy," Ofer Zer '01, one of Cisneros' best friends and his roommate for four terms over sophomore and senior year, said.

Liam Kuhn '02 remembers Cisneros as his first friend at Dartmouth.

"He's still one of the best people I've met here ... He never let anything get him down," he said, repeatedly citing Cisneros' enthusiasm and positive outlook on life.

Cisneros' love and devotion to his family "came through in every single thing he did," according to Rafat. The two friends shared tight bonds with their mothers, and would often talk late into the night about their families.

"He was a great personality, and a perfect son, and a perfect brother," Lidia Alvarez, Cisneros' mother said.

At the time of his death, Cisneros was fully involved in building a future with his long-time girlfriend, ABC News employee and Smith graduate Stefanie Albert. The couple had met on the porch of Sig Ep after sharing a Government 5 class, gone on a date a week later in which they talked until six in the morning, and then remained friends for a year and a half before extending the relationship.

"It was like -- good morning, this is the man you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with. We just clicked," Alberts said.

They dreamed of moving to the West Coast, going to graduate school and becoming professors at the same university. Both placed priority on living a relaxed lifestyle and finding a proper environment in which to raise children.

Cisneros called Alberts twice after the collision to tell her he loved her.

"When I think about it, not that this takes the pain away, but he just did everything right," Alberts said, noting his hard work and close relationships with herself, family and friends.

"All we needed was each other. It was the kind of relationship that felt completely fulfilled," Albert said.

At Dartmouth, Cisneros majored in government and heavily involved himself in his fraternity, Chi Gamma Epsilon, at one point serving as social chair. Both Kuhn and Rafat went on to join Chi Gam due in substantial part to their friendships with him.

Kristin Ann Kelly '98 remembered Cisneros as an exemplary representative of his fraternity, noting his openness to listen and engage in dialogue with respect to women and the Greek system.

Cisneros mentored two Central American children adopted by a Vermont family through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. He grew close to the entire family; Albert recalled attending a celebratory dinner for Cisneros' Dartmouth graduation at the Vermont couple's home.

"It was one of the single most magical experiences of my life ... Something about that evening struck such a chord in both of us," she said, describing insightful conversation, basketball, and the sight of fireflies illuminated against a large meadow. The occasion helped Albert and Cisneros reaffirm their plans for a life together.

Cisneros loved running, learning to play the guitar with Albert and reading -- his favorite authors included Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

He enjoyed numerous sports and surrounded himself with friends and family whenever possible. He had a talent for reaching out to people, and his mother recalled his enthusiasm for public speaking.

Given his roots in Southern California and Central America, the transition to frigid northern New England was not entirely a natural one.

"He hadn't seen the snow or ice before, and he was always slipping in the ice or playing in the snow," Zer said.

In 1998, Cisneros led a DOC Trip as a last minute replacement. He was a "Californian who couldn't build a fire," Caroline Tarnok '02 noted, going on to describe her leader as "funny, nice, laid-back and easygoing ... He seemed like a really good guy who was willing to step in."

According to Tarnok, Cisneros always hiked in the back, keeping an eye out to make sure everyone felt all right.

When a rain-soaked tarp fell down on the sleeping section A11-12 at 6 a.m., most of the students resigned themselves to getting up early to eat. Cisneros, ever finding the positive, managed to sleep on, buried underneath the matted plastic.

"He was so happy at Dartmouth; he loved that College," Alvarez said, specifying Cisneros' appreciation for the students, teachers, environment, weather and library.

"He never complained about anything -- he loved everything," she said, adding, "He was so proud to be there. And I was very proud of him, too. I still am."

Cisneros had taken the job as a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald straight out of college, in order to gain experience, pay off his student loans and help his sister, Ana, finance her own college education. Alvarez noted that Cisneros always asked about Ana's grades and checked on her progress.

"Being a bond trader was not his calling; banking was not his calling. It was a means to an end," Cisneros' girlfriend Stefanie Albert said.

"He wanted to continue studying. He liked medicine; he liked politics. He can do everything ... he was great in everything," Alvarez said.

"He really wanted to help people," Zer said.

Cisneros also felt a strong gratitude to his adopted homeland.

"He said, 'Mamma, I want to give back to this country,'" Alvarez said, "The only comfort I have now is the way he did it -- they all did it. He loves America, he loves the life."Albert's family is currently working to set up a scholarship in Cisneros' name at the College.