Their names are Rene, Luis, Kevin, Jose Alfredo, Tanya, Jose, Humberto, Maria Guadalupe, Yesenia, Marco, and Jose. They're the most recent troops headed to college to engage in the battle of life and the struggle to uplift California.
I spoke to the group, their parents, and some civic leaders last week at an early morning awards breakfast next to the Rose Bowl. All of them are recipients of a Pasadena City College merit scholarship whose funds were raised by community members. It'll help them pay for the four-year education they're set to begin in the fall. From the podium I rattled off some bilingual college-themed jokes and passed on advice about personal growth and the need for empathy and love in the world now. It struck me, as I stepped away from the podium, that I'd been talking to youth who are a lot like a large part of the state's youth today. Civic leaders and education researchers say success for these students can only be good for our state.
A nose-ringed student with dreadlocked hair thanked his family for the support to finish community college and confessed that despite his looks he's a "nerd in disguise." He wants to practice engineering without borders and has no problem doing it pro-bono.
Another student talked about growing up with the echoes in his room of shootings down the street from his house. Now, he wants to pursue a business economics degree to return to his neighborhood and start business ventures that benefit the area instead of solely taking customers' money.
33 year-old Tanya Jimenez talked of dropping out of Metropolitan High School after she found out she was pregnant. With her son beside her after the ceremony, she held a California's State Senate recognition for her merit scholarship. A job as a field deputy for a Los Angeles city council office, she said, opened her eyes to how important it is to provide public services to people in need. Her goal is to earn a communications degree at Cal State L.A. and one day rise in the ranks of politics, perhaps to serve as a deputy mayor one day.
Humberto, a soft-spoken 19 year-old, talked of how the current immigration climate has convinced him to pursue a career as an immigration lawyer. No matter how hard he works and no matter how much he achieves in college, if immigration laws don't change he will never reach his goal. Humberto's parents brought him to the U.S. when he was four years-old without proper immigration documents. He didn't break any laws, he said, the United States is all he knows.
He's led a life unlike that of the average teen. He has no drivers' license, he doesn't stay out at night for fear of coming into contact with police, and that leads to a nearly empty social life. The new Arizona law that allows police to enforce immigration laws, he said, promotes racial profiling. It's hypocrisy, he added, that America preaches equality and opportunity while allowing this law on the books. He's moving forward, with the nearly blind hope that he can attend UC Berkeley or UC Riverside and then earn a law degree.
These are the troops trudging up from the trenches to improve their lives and the state's economy in the process. The sky may appear to be falling in California but the hope in these students' voices made me want to spend a little more time with them just in case this optimism thing is contagious.