Key Lessons for Success in Higher Education and Beyond

3. Álvaro Huerta in front of mural “Ghosts of the barrio” (1974) by Wayne Healy. Photo by Pablo Aguilar (2005.)

As I reflect on my early undergraduate years at UCLA, where I entered as a first-generation math major 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 dept. award!). I then pursued my Ph.D. degree in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley (fully funded, including a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship), as the # 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)?

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 micro-aggressions.

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: “If I could survive the abject poverty, extreme violence and state of hopelessness of Tijuana and E.L.A. projects — something you know nothing about, like almost being killed by the police for “driving while brown”— I could survive anything!”

Based on the aforementioned, 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!

Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).

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