On a daily basis, I strive to be the laziest Mexican I am capable of being. I say this with pride because I remember once, about 4 years ago, reading a book on Chicano history in California and reading the remark, "An educated Mexican is a lazy Mexican." In an instant, I understood its meaning and vowed not to be the "cheap labor" the farmer in the book desired. Shortly afterward, a lifetime of images, conversations, and experiences flooded my brain and I recognized why my parents had often encouraged me to educated myself. Although I have long since forgotten the title of the book the quote came from, not a day has passed that I have not thought about it. However, I am grateful for that farmer's remark because it lifted the veil that had blinded me for the previous 18 years of my life. To understand this blindness you must first understand my life prior to my revelation.
My Early Days
My earliest and fondest memories are those spent with my family. My extended family including aunts, uncles, and cousins provided me with more happiness and support than a young boy could ask for. While we were not financially wealthy, I always had something to eat, somewhere to sleep, and warm clothes to wear. All this happiness and security was provided despite the fact my parents and relatives were not college graduates. Therefore, I did not see education as a necessity for happiness.
Since then I have come to realize that education definitely enhances intellectual stimulation and analytical thinking; however, I still do not believe education is necessary to be a happy person. In fact, as a young boy, I even went so far as to view it as a retardant of happiness, since I would often wonder, who has time to play and be with friends and family when one is locked away in a room reading and writing? This line of reasoning stayed with me as I grew older.
As a high school student, I continued to try to find the best path for personal development, but because of my background I was not looked upon as an outstanding academic prospect for college. For example, until my junior year, I did not know what an SAT was. Throughout my entire high school experience, not once was I called into the counselor's office to discuss my future, much less the possibility of attending college. Perhaps part of the counselor's reasoning was my apparent apathy for education; however, this does not excuse her lack of help.
Simply by virtue of the title, a counselor is one who advises students on personal and academic problems, but the people my high school counselor needed to help the most were usually ignored. Was it because my family and others like us didn't have much money? In my mind students from well-off, highly-educated families don't need as much counseling as those from low-income families. Please keep in mind that my experience with my counselor may not be true of counselors in general. I hope all students regardless of socioeconomic status have access to information that will help mold their futures.
Without any direction or true motivation to learn and not wanting to get a job quite yet, I enrolled at a local community college, Cosumnes River College ( CRC ), simply out of inertia. It was here that I finally met some people who had a genuine interest in my future and success. I enrolled in a few courses that began to stimulate my mind in ways I had never felt before. After I came across the quote mentioned above, I met countless others who began to mold and transform me into the person I am today. In addition, I took several science and mathematics courses, which led to my choosing mathematics as my major subject.
After taking classes in the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement ( MESA ) building at CRC, I became more motivated to study. MESA has helped thousands of students of color just like me to be academically successful. Organizers of MESA, an educational enrichment program that encourages and aids minority students to pursue science-related majors, understood what many people including the bigoted farmer and my high school counselor did not--that minorities are capable of great scholastic achievement and triumph despite negative stereotypical labels.
After spending 4 years at CRC, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. By the end of my first semester, I found out about another great program that has helped me more than I could ever imagine. I became a scholar of the University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees ( UC LEADS ) program, headed by Dr. Diana Lizarraga. The objective of this program is to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds become strong applicants for graduate school by funding their scientific research, helping them prepare for GRE exams, and providing invaluable counseling in all aspects of the graduate studies process.
When I think about the past, consider the present, and look toward the future, I know that I am going to dedicate myself and energy to helping break the cycle of which I was once a victim. Having just completed a course in the African American Studies department on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can see the problem of educational inequality through the same prism he viewed racism (mostly the socioeconomic reasons I mentioned above). I believe the solution to this problem may also be very similar.
One of the big ideas King stressed early on and throughout his life was self-help. We must take it upon ourselves to enlighten each other to the benefits of an education, and to encourage and motivate our younger brothers and sisters. They are the next generation of minority students, so we should become positive role models and inspire them to study hard. In the spirit of my own personal journey, nobody can do it alone, and hence programs such as MESA and UC LEADS are essential to correcting the problem that exists today. King realized this too and tried as hard as he could not alienate his white brothers and sisters, but seek their help and accept it. We too should strive for a strong and stable community through equal opportunity education. The alternative will only hold us back.
Juan Carlos Trujillo is a mathematics major and UC LEADS Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .