What Keeps Blue-Collar Kids on Campus?

It Took Me Over a Decade to Find My Way to College. Now I Tutor So Students Like Me Can Succeed.

My destination was the Center for Learning and Academic Support Services (C.L.A.S.S.) in building 11 on the small college complex of California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. I tutored there. I was running late, so I moved with purpose through the parking lot, hustling down the steps and up the path.

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I recognized the student standing at the C.L.A.S.S. entrance. His hands smoothed down the collared shirt he was wearing and glided into the pockets of his jeans. His ball cap was rakishly canted to one side. I saw much of myself in him, except that at 18, I was roaming the streets and not the walkways of a university campus. He is a first-generation college student from a low-income family. He is from the barrio. He nodded what’s up and lifted a hand to wave. I waved back. He must have scheduled an appointment. I must have forgotten.

The previous semester, the two of us had spent many sessions at a table in the learning center as we remedied run-on sentences, corrected comma splices, and rooted out redundancies. I made suggestions about word choice and sentence transitions and stressed revision. Frustration showed on his face at times. At times it showed on mine. We both learned the value of patience. I said everyone’s entitled to mistakes now and again. The aim is to learn from them. Don’t get discouraged. It’s too easy to fall to the wayside.

I fell by the wayside. It took me 10 years to get back on track.

The student watched as I approached. He didn’t have an appointment, he said, extending his hand. “I just want to say thanks.”

“For what?”

“My grade’s up to a B.”

I shared his joy. When he first came to see me, he was getting a D in English.

It occurred to me then that he had been waiting around for 10 minutes or more to express his gratitude. I don’t know if I’d have done the same for a tutor. I felt special. I made a difference. I didn’t know I could.

I avoided college for 10 years because I thought it was no place for a guy who got his high school degree from adult school, a vato from the barrio. My mother encouraged me to enroll at a community college. I joined the U.S. Army instead. I had the opportunity to take college courses at Fort Polk, Louisiana, but I never took the first step because, in my heart, I believed an associate or bachelor’s degree was out of my league. My squad leader, Sgt. German Perez, mentioned school now and again, but he never pressured me.

The obstacles presented to first-generation college students from low-income households are too numerous to count. In the inner city, it’s easy to run with a gang, to get high, to get thrown in the slammer, to see your dreams go up in flames. The rent is due next month. The light and gas are about to be cut. There are mouths to feed. To those who face these pressures and come and see me for tutoring, I say what my platoon daddy, Staff Sgt. Alexander, used to say to me: Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.

My grandfather quit school in the 1920s to work the fields with his father in Michoacán, Mexico, but he still stressed the importance of education. Another believer in the power of knowledge was the teacher in my grandfather’s town of Tangancicuaro. The story goes that the teacher walked several kilometers to my grandfather’s house after school to tutor him. I imagine grandpa sitting down with this man to learn about literature, math, history, and science. My great-grandmother gave the teacher eggs in lieu of pay. Why’d the instructor walk all that way? I think he thought he’d make a difference.

When I think about the student in the ball cap waiting underneath the eucalyptus trees beside the entrance to the learning center, I think about the man who took the time to teach my grandpa. Like my grandfather, the students I tutor are in need of a positive influence. There was a time when I would’ve laughed in your face to hear sentiments like that. I was too cynical.

After four years in Uncle Sam’s Army, I became a civilian again. It was the year 2000. My mother again suggested college. Instead, I got a job as a delivery route driver. I planned on driving a step van for the rest of my days. But one day five years later, after clocking out, I went to a pub in Carson, California and had one too many. When I was driving home, a squad car pulled me over. It was foolish of me to get in my car and drive. The police thought so too and arrested me. With a DUI, I lost my blue-collar job.

I filed for unemployment and paid a visit to the Career Transition Center on Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach, California, where I spoke with a veterans’ employment service specialist. I inquired about blue-collar gigs, but he pushed college. He said if I didn’t use my G.I. Bill benefits, I’d lose them. (Ten years is the limit.) It was late 2005 or early 2006. I stuck to temping.

What eventually got me back to school was seeing my brother, Adam, who had also hit a rough patch in his life, find a profession that gave him a sense of fulfillment. He had earned a degree in industrial engineering from UC Berkeley but was stacking books at Borders. Eventually, he decided to earn a teaching credential, and he became a math teacher at Fleming Middle School in Lomita. To this day, his former students thank him when they spot him in a local restaurant, mall, or movie theater.

In the fall of 2006, I cashed in what remained of my G.I. Bill chips and enrolled at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, California. I was 30 years old. After earning an associate degree in 2009, I transferred to Cal State Dominguez Hills, where I majored in English. Many wonderful instructors and acquaintances gave me the boost of confidence I needed. Now it’s my turn to do the same for others. Although tutoring pays less than what I made as a route driver, it has been an honor to serve the groups of three or more who attend my office hours or workshops. It warms my heart to see a room full of eager faces wanting to learn.

This fall, because I fell behind on paperwork, I have not been tutoring. Instead, I have been writing fiction and nonfiction, and also helping my uncle, who has been staying with me. (That’s another story.) But I miss those smiling faces and look forward to seeing them again. I already know what I’m going to say to my students next year: Keep on moving. Despite the setbacks and the drama, keep on moving. You can graduate. And not by the skin of your teeth, either. Cum laude? Why not summa cum laude?


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