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School Puts Mexican-Americans on the Road to Success

Tough love and hard work is the prescription at San Jose's Downtown College Prep — and it's getting results.

by
Joanne Jacobs

Bio

June 28, 2008 - 12:30 am
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As the ‘04 commencement speaker, Magdalena Villalvazo had talked about doubting that any college would want her, about trying to persuade her mother to let her quit. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said. A business graduate from Dominican University, Magdalena is working at a bank, where she’ll train to be an investment banker. I asked her what was hard about college. “Everything!” she said. But becoming a college student was “exhilarating.”

Veronica Lugo Perez’s admissions essay started, “Pulled by my mother’s dreams, I walked barefoot across the border from Mexico. I was six years old.” Her mother has a first-grade education and works as a janitor and seamstress. When she started DCP, Veronica decided she wanted to make honor roll and she did, every semester. She graduated in Spanish from Santa Clara University. Now she’s decided to earn a doctorate and be a Spanish professor.

Erika Rico, who came from Mexico without a word of English in middle school, earned a math degree at Mount Holyoke. She’s been hired by a space sciences company, which will pay for her graduate education.

I helped Yessica Solorio with a college form when she was a senior. She was struggling with English spelling and grammar. One question asked if she had work experience. She was working a five-hour dinner shift as a waitress three days a week plus 16 hours on the weekends at a furniture store. I said, “Thirty-one hours is a lot.” Yessica said she liked to work. She’d been very sick as a child, forced to rely on others. With better medical care in the U.S., her health had improved and she could enjoy the pleasure of doing things for herself. Some of her earnings helped support the family — her mother was out of work — and the rest went into her college fund. That work ethic paid off for her at Cal State Monterey Bay, where she earned a degree in kinesiology.

Gloria Medina gave a speech about her turnaround: She was a rebellious, unmotivated student until her sophomore year. “I simply got tired of failing,” she said. She thanked her tutor, the college counselor and her mother. She started crying when she tried to talk about her mother and couldn’t go on. I told her later that we’d all gotten the gist of it.

A UC-Santa Cruz psychology graduate, Gloria plans to get a master’s in social work at San Jose State. She’s also being considered for a job at DCP-Alviso, a new middle-high school that will open in the fall.

Juan Guttierez earned a psychology degree at Monterey Bay. He’s going to work at a restaurant — the tips are excellent — for a year or two, then return to college to earn a master’s degree in psychology so he can be a school psychologist. That kid who read “ride the carrot salad” eight years ago, that was Juan.

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