South Coast graduates take the world by storm

Mariela Lopez and Barbara Guzman were Pescadero teens with college dreams when they started work with the Puente Youth Leadership Development and Employment Program seven years ago. Now they are conquering heroes, returning with university diplomas that will springboard them into graduate schools and fulfilling careers.

Their lives are already very different from their parents’ lives, as well as those of their siblings and many of their hometown friends. They are walking a new path, one with different expectations. And if that sounds scary and exhilarating, it is.

Lopez and Guzman – along with their high school compatriot, Luis Mendez – are the first Puente youth to graduate from a 4-year college since Puente created its leadership program. Their accomplishments reflect an extraordinary resilience and strength of character. They also represent the culmination of Puente’s youth programming goals, which endorse a college education from the word go.

“I went to college because of Puente. I had no idea how an application was done,” says Lopez. “Rachel at Puente helped me apply to different schools and talked with me about the different advantages and disadvantages.”

Lopez and Guzman have a lot in common. Both are 22, and grew up in Pescadero in low-income families. Both women enrolled in Puente’s youth program at 14 or 15, gaining skills through different summer jobs with Puente and saving their paychecks for college. Both chose to attend Cal State Monterey Bay, from which they both graduated this past winter. Neither woman ever questioned that she would make it to college, even though they were both first in their families to matriculate to a 4-year university.  And both will pursue advanced degrees – Lopez in social work, Guzman in law.

But they are also very different. When Guzman was growing up, her father, a Mexico-born carpenter and maintenance specialist at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch, pushed her to pursue a higher education. “He always talked about going to school and being educated. He talked about how important it is to pursue a better life through the benefits of education,” she says. He didn’t blink when she told him she wanted to go to a 4-year college, despite the fact that the family didn’t have the money to send her there.

Guzman’s father couldn’t help her fill out her admission forms, apply for scholarships, or figure out the tangle of bureaucracy and logistics involved in setting herself up in a new town, on a new campus, at a new school. At 18, Guzman had to look outside her family for some help. But he took days off work to drive her to Monterey Bay on occasions like her placement tests. He waited for her and drove her home again. Those car trips meant a lot, and so did his support.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a very ambitions person, and very dedicated,” says Guzman. “He’s been the one motivating me, encouraging me.”

For her part, Lopez grew up with a father who had very strict ideas about how his daughter should behave and what she ought to aspire to. He rarely allowed her to leave the house to socialize at night. He would not permit her to join the high school women’s soccer team, because he did not believe it fit with how women should behave. So when Lopez got up the nerve to tell him that she wanted to go to college – to leave home for four years and live on campus – he was confused, and then angry.

“He was saying, ‘Why do you need to go to college if you have a good job at Puente?’ I had to explain what college means here in America, and what it meant to me. It was hard to explain to him, because he is very traditional, and going against him is seen as disrespectful in our culture,” recalls Lopez, who becomes emotional at the memory of the confrontation.

But she pushed. She told her parents, who worked at a flower nursery and spoke little English, that she was old enough to make her own decisions. And on the day she moved into her new dorm room at Cal State, both parents were there to help. “I knew my dad was still upset, but he came and that was huge for me,” says Lopez. “When they left me, I cried. My siblings cried. And he cried as well. Even though he didn’t say it, I knew in the long run I was going to make him happy and proud.”

Lopez and her family on graduation day

Lopez and her family on graduation day

Today, Puente helps acclimate young people to the expectation of college at an early age. Classroom Connection, a Puente/LHPUSD partnership  brings bilingual UC Santa Cruz students into elementary and middle school classrooms as teacher’s aides, knowing that they represent something to aspire to. In later years, Puente youth regularly tour local college campuses as part of Puente’s effort to help them see themselves in college and beyond. And Puente holds Career Night at the local high school, where Latino/a professionals talk to students and their parents about college and their careers.

Both young women experienced a major culture shock when they left Pescadero High, with a graduating class of 18 peers, and entered a school with 1,500 students in their year. They had never been around so many people. Yet they also had to learn to be alone for the first time, away from their families. They learned how to cook their own meals, manage their workloads and navigate a new town. They both had student jobs on campus to supplement their room and board.

Both Lopez and Guzman made it all the way through college without having to take out any student loans. They successfully applied for financial aid and merit-based scholarships – in many cases, with letters of reference from Puente. And Puente’s own college scholarship programs, sponsored by individual donors as well as the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, helped cover books and other school supplies.

In time, Guzman outgrew the Monterey campus. She wanted to transfer to another school, but never did. Today she says she regrets not applying to her first choice school, Stanford University. “I was intimidated at the time – that so that’s where I’m going to go now,” she says. She is living near her mother in Fresno this summer, preparing for the LSAT so that she can apply to Stanford and other law schools this fall.

Guzman and her family on graduation day.

Guzman and her family on graduation day.

Lopez now lives in Redwood City with her boyfriend. She is spending the summer working with Puente. She recently got into her first choice masters program: the School of Social Work at San Jose State University.

“When they told me, I was just sobbing, I was so happy,” she says. “They told me they had 500 applicants and the class is only going to be 80 students.”

No matter where her life takes her from now on, Lopez will always remember her graduation from CSU Monterey Bay as one of the happiest and most emotional days of her life. Her family was there, and they were so proud of her. Her father especially. “The first person I hugged after my graduation ceremony was over, was him,” she says.

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