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.
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 gardeners, defeating power plant) — after teaching myself how to read and write — I 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 I 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 world, where I 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 environments. Be 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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