From Duarte to Stanford–How it Happened

How does someone graduate from Stanford whose father worked as a janitor at a supermarket and only received a 6th grade education? Whose mother was an immigrant from Jamaica, schizophrenic, raised 3 children at home, and only went up to the 9th grade? Who grew up in a neighborhood where the sequence of gunshots, sirens, and helicopters flying overhead were the weekend norm? Who lived near a street no one dare go down after sunset? Short answer — Sesame Street, reading, and discipline. Long answer — continue reading this blog.

I write this after sitting with friends yesterday who suggested I share some background stories to let others know more about me and how I got to where I am now. As part of a series relating to different areas of my life, I start with the subject of education.

I attended a Martin Luther King Jr. event this past Monday. During the event a group of high school students shared a recent study they did which pointed out how one’s perception of socioeconomic status affects one’s grade point average at the high school level. It revealed that the higher one perceives one’s socioeconomic status, the higher one’s GPA.

It made me think of my own socioeconomic background growing up and the educational background of my parents, key determinants of how well one will do academically, according to statistics. My father retired when I was 7, so our income after that was from social security my parents received and the pension from his work as a janitor. I am one of 3 children and would consider our socioeconomic status as lower middle class. We weren’t poor. We always had food, lived in a house, bought clothes for back-to-school, and had other necessities. We lived moderately without the luxuries of traveling where ever or whenever we wanted or buying an extravagant car.

I remember my mother reading to me a lot before I entered kindergarten. I watched Sesame Street all the time. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he shares how the show helps with children’s literacy and math skills, which made me realize its impact on my academic performance when entering school. I remember catching on to everything quickly during kindergarten — putting cartoon sequences together easily, being able to learn how to write, learning how to count to 100 before other students, placing the correct shape and color into the right hole in the box, to the point where the teacher brought in the principal and other administrators to the classroom to show them what I could do.

I skipped first grade, going directly to second and continued to do well. The school was without a GATE program which they suggested to my parents for me. The following fall, I started at another elementary school and entered the second grade again. My memory is blurry as to why, I just remember it was either a mistake made by those making decisions for me or that my father wanted me to stay with children my own age. Anyway, I went to second grade twice at two different schools.

I continued doing well academically. Come time for applying to colleges, my high school counselor suggested I apply to Stanford, a few UC schools, and some Ivy League universities because of my high GPA, SAT scores, and performance in extracurricular activities. I was accepted by Stanford and decided to attend.

I struggled academically at the beginning. It was the second time leaving the Los Angeles area (other than going to Louisiana when I was 2), the first time being a visit to Stanford while my sister was there. I was introduced to an entirely new socioeconomic environment — big buildings with elevators that required a map to find a place, a variety of food other than McDonalds and pizza, a library with more than one floor, people actually communicating to one another in a social setting. I experienced culture shock and at the same time needed to raise myself to a new level of academic performance. I took a year off after my freshman year, realizing I had been in school since I was 5 and wanted to take some time to myself. I went back, still struggling a bit, and midway through junior year took another year off to mature. I went back, finally reaching a state where I performed well academically. All those hours watching Sesame Street and my mother reading to me finally paid off.

As I stated earlier, I believe discipline also played a large part in being able to perform well academically. My father was the disciplinarian of the house. He whipped us with his belt and made us get on our knees and pray whenever we did something he didn’t understand. There was fear involved in those forms of discipline. I remember his gentle, loving discipline as well, making sure I did our homework as soon as I came home from school while always stressing the importance of an education. He would often say, “Once you get an education, no one can take it away from you.” I believe his encouragement to do well academically helped foster an atmosphere of doing well in school. To this day, it carries over into the self-discipline I bring to everything that I do.

Looking back at it all, it may seem very unlikely that a man of many colors, growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, being exposed to other cultures solely through television and movies, and whose parents didn’t receive a high school diploma, would be able to graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. But it happened. I share this story as a model for anyone else who thinks that he/she can’t overcome overwhelming or impossible circumstances. It can be done.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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