Key lessons for success in higher education and beyond

By Alvaro Huerta, May 11, 2021

As I reflect on my early undergraduate years at UCLA, where I entered as a first-generation math student from the notorious Ramon Gardens public housing project (or Big Hazard projects) in East Los Angeles, I’m still surprised (more like shocked) that I graduated. While I excelled in mathematics, I wasn’t prepared in reading and writing at the university level. It didn’t help that I prioritized my student activism (e.g., being a MEChista) over my studies.  

Álvaro Huerta in front of mural “Ghosts of the barrio” by Wayne Healy in 2005. (Courtesy of Pablo Aguilar)

Hence, before I voluntarily withdrew from UCLA in Winter of ‘88, embarking on a hiatus to become a community organizer and idealistically transform the world, I received the following English grades: 

  • ENGCOMP A = C 
  • ENGCOMP B = D+
  • ENGCOMP B = B (retake)
  • ENGCOMP 3 = NP 

This doesn’t include a couple of incompletes, where I left with a 2.32 GPA! 

Fourteen years later and several community organizing victories to my name (e.g., organizing Latino gardenersdefeating power plant— after teaching myself how to read and write — returned to UCLA to finish what I started many moons ago. Being more mature and better prepared, for my final years, I received mostly A’s (with several A+’s), graduating with a history degree and 3.56 GPA (cumulative) 

This led me to my master’s degree in urban planning at UCLA (fully funded), where graduated top of my class with a 3.96 GPA (being robbed of the top department award)! I then pursued my doctorate in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley (fully funded, including a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship), as the No. 1 ranked public university in the worldwhere graduated with a 3.86 GPA. 

Did I mention that I’m an associate professor at a great university  California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (or Cal Poly Pomona)? 

Good thing I don’t self-promote! 

During all my years in higher education, several professors “fondly” told me (in person and via email) that: “I wasn’t going to graduate,” “I didn’t have what it takes to succeed,” “I wasn’t going to acquire a tenure-track faculty position,” “I wasn’t going to secure tenure and promotion” and two more pages of racial microaggressions.  

Why is it that for students/faculty of color, we must always prove ourselves to the members of the dominant culture? It’s especially sad when the diatribes come from other students/faculty of color. 

My usual response to my cowardly bullies and racists is: “If I could survive the abject poverty, extreme violence and state of hopelessness of Tijuana and the ELA projects  something you know nothing about, like almost being killed by the cops “driving while brown”— I could survive anything!” 

Based on the above, I provide the following lessons for success in higher education and beyond: 

Learn from your mistakes. Adapt to new or unfamiliar environmentsBe bold. Be brave. Dare to take risks without fear of failure; without failure, there can be no success. If you’re a racialized minority, you must work twice as hard (or more) to succeed in this country. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; only successful people seek help. Master the rules of the institution(s) or game. Prioritize your education/degree(s)you have the rest of your life to work, socialize and play. Don’t let others validate your self-worth; always believe in yourself. Never give up!  

To wrap up, and to highlight on one of the lessons above, once I started seeking help, everything eventually worked out in my favor. Given that I was only 17 years of age when I first entered UCLA’s Freshman Summer Program in 1985, I was too immature and shy to ask for help. I was also embarrassed to admit that I had only written one 2-page research paper (double-spaced) in my K-12 education!  

As I gained political consciousness via my student activism and independent studies, I soon learned that America’s educational system failed me  a poor, brown kid from the projects. This revelation allowed me to seek tutoring and visit my academic counselor, who taught me about “pass/no pass” and which classes to take (and how many) to protect my GPA. At the end of the day, I learned that it’s smart to seek help! 


About: Dr. Álvaro Huerta is an Associate Professor in Urban & Regional Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at California State Polytechnic University. Among other scholarly publications, he’s the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm and Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond. As a first generation graduate (elementary, high school and university) and Ford Foundation Fellow, he holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in urban planning and a B.A. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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