Education: My Road to Upward Mobility
I grew up in inner city Los Angeles, born to immigrant parents who didn’t speak English prior to arriving in this country. I attended LA public schools and my brother and I were both on the National School Lunch Program. During the 1992 LA Riots, many of our neighborhood stores were looted and burned. After the riots, we applied to go to a magnet school in West Los Angeles, instead of attending our home high school, which was Los Angeles High School. Growing up in this environment and achieving what I have today, I have a lot of understanding and empathy towards people with similar backgrounds. I listen to stories of friends and neighbors of Concord and feel that I know what they are talking about. Combining these strengths, I have strong interpersonal management skills that allow me to relate to many people. I hope to share my story as a possible path to improve one’s socio-economic status.
I was a “good” student based on our grades, but looking back, I feel I was socially promoted up through the 10th grade. Compared to my peers in the classroom, I was doing well, but when compared to students nationally and internationally, “good” was still below average. Watching Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow most of the day was common in elementary school. I remember in 7th grade, I read Stuart Little for my book report. This is a book my daughter read in first grade last year. In 9th grade, I was placed in some honors classes, but looking back, I was far behind my peers. In an assignment to write about mythology that was not Greek or Roman based, I was stumped and wrote about Hercules. I did not do well in that assignment.
In 10th grade, I did a reading assessment and learned that I was reading at about a 3rd grade level. I was fortunate that I had teachers in the magnet school I attended who realized my potential for success and they brought me up to where I should have been. The 10th grade was a very painful transition year, where I was rapidly catching up to my peers on a national level.
Up to this point, my parents had encouraged me to work hard, be responsible, stay out of trouble, and do well in school. They provided whatever assistance they could, but didn’t know the system or the language. I had planned to enlist in the military and then become a mail carrier. My time in high school was one of the greatest transitions that raised the bar for me.
Besides the classroom work, I received extra help from my magnet school teachers. We worked together through recess and lunch periods and they taught me to formulate opinions and think for myself. Even today, I read information from two or more opposing points of view and decide where my values align before formulating my opinions.
I also worked with my high school college and career counselor, who, while I was in 11th grade, encouraged me to apply for a summer internship at the University of Vermont (UVM) for inner city scholars. I was 1 of 12 accepted nationally. At the time I lived near Vermont Ave and my mom thought I could take the bus to “my job” every day. Landing at Burlington Airport in Vermont, I thought we were crash landing in the forest because there were so many trees nearby. Also, when I met the other interns on the first day, we decided to walk around the campus and town. They were all minorities from the New York or Los Angeles area. We noticed that drivers in cars slowed down as they passed out and we commented that they looked at us as if we were zoo animals. It was a very different experience.
At UVM, I worked as a high school intern at the School of Natural Sciences and wrote a research paper about the effect of carbon dioxide on red spruce trees as my final project and submitted it to the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now called the Intel Science Talent Search). Although I didn’t make it to the final round, I was selected as the only semifinalist from Los Angeles that year. Then in 12th grade, I had to make a choice of following the path that I planned for years, or to take a risk and continue on to the university. Since childhood, my parents encouraged me to work hard, graduate high school, enlist in the military, and become a postal carrier. I hadn’t put much thought into going to college, even though I grew up a huge USC fan because I lived near the campus. I had known from an early age that I was good at math. So using math as my foundation and science as an area of interest, I looked at the various major areas of study that paid the most with a bachelor’s of science degree. I was accepted to UCLA in their chemical engineering program and enrolled the following year. I had never met a chemical engineer prior to that, but I knew that they were paid the most.
In my high school graduating class, I was in the top 1-2 percent of seniors based on GPA. When I arrived at UCLA, I discovered that I was woefully behind my peers again. I had to retake remedial English, even though I had taken AP English comprehension and AP English literature in high school. Based on an entrance exam, I enrolled in Honors Chemistry, only to find out that many of my classmates were repeating this class because they took the coursework in high school and/or had additional tutoring. I received a C- in the class. I continued to struggle but showed enough improvement that my academic counselor let me stay at UCLA. I really wanted to stretch for results by taking 22-24 quarter credits (12 is considered full time) and working at the local Jack in the Box. This was a mistake that I quickly learned from as I stretched beyond capabilities. It’s okay to make mistakes. Make it is a learning moment and helps you be better prepared for next time. Working at Jack in the Box was an eye opening experience. There were workers that had been there for 20 years and as a reward for their loyalty, they were paid $1.00 more per hour than I was. I got more than minimum wage at $4.30 per hour (when minimum wage was $4.25 per hour). It was a dead end job and I didn’t want to be in that situation 20 years later, so I focused harder on my studies. I left this job when I found one on campus at the chemistry library where I was paid more, and the job allowed me to use my time to enhance my studies.
Along the way, I met a substitute professor who shared the uncommon first name. I approached him and asked to work at his lab as an intern and he introduced me to his post doc. I worked there for 2 years in his lab as an undergraduate researcher and using that experience, received a good paying summer internship at a national defense company. I worked with really talented and high caliber scientists developing lasers and solar panels. After this internship, I was offered an 8 month in Northern California. Opportunities like this do not come often, so I jumped at it, dropped out of UCLA and worked 60-80 hours per week (plus was on call 24 hrs/day, 7 days/week) while enrolled in 2 classes at UC Berkeley. I was not a very good student at UC Berkeley. Because of the demanding work internship schedule, I barely passed Economics and Egyptology, but I passed and my credits transferred. After I dropped out of UCLA, it was possible I wouldn’t be able to be re-accepted back to the school, especially with my borderline academic history. Luckily, I was reaccepted at UCLA. By now, I had the confidence to lead and influence, so I took a leadership position as the president of the UCLA Student Chapter of AIChE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers), finished the engineering program and graduated one year later. Before I graduated, I received multiple job offers and I accepted a job. When I received the job offers, they were at a higher salary than my parents combined income at the time. They didn’t believe me when I told them, and I could barely believe it myself. I could not see myself achieving this just a handful of years before and now I was going to join the professional ranks at a top company, where I worked for 14 years.
I think to summarize, figure out your strengths and areas of interest. Set goals and focus on them by building a life and journey roadmap that you can adjust when needed. I’m still working on mine and continue to update as necessary. Be responsible, when you commit to a task, hold yourself accountable to deliver the results. Create a positive “can do” attitude that is contagious and will allow you to lead and positively influence others. Seek help when needed, make mistakes and learn from them. Take appropriate risk to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. When opportunity knocks will you be prepared to open the door?