I first met Yesenia Aguilar in 1994 when I was volunteering in the Learning Center at the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club. Yesenia was a very personable high school junior who exhibited noticeable leadership traits, excelled in sports especially basketball, but put forth the minimum amount of effort in her school work just to stay “eligible”. She faced numerous challenges which didn’t support making her education a priority. Her family was poor, her immigrant parents were loving but divorced and her two brothers were heavily involved in gangs. In fact, one had been almost fatally stabbed a block from the Boys & Girls Club when she was growing up. One thing she did have going for her was that she didn’t follow in her brothers’ footsteps – there was no way she was going to be a gang member. Her “gang” was the kids who played ball at the Club.
I became Executive Director a year later and in June of that year Yesenia visited me to share a major decision she had made. “I need to get out of town Mike and go to college” she stated. Yesenia proceeded to tell me that she didn’t want to travel down that same dead-end path that her brothers and too many of her friends had taken. To be honest, I was most surprised when she told me that San Jose State had accepted her with a 2.3 G.P.A., but she assured me this was true. She said that she knew she had wasted her high school opportunity and now wanted to make a commitment to her education and future. I told her the Club would help out any way we could.
Besides her limited academic progress to date, Yesenia also faced the fact that due to her family’s limited resources, she would basically have to finance both her education and living expenses by herself. We stayed in touch throughout her college years and though the Club helped her out with some limited funding each year, the reality is that Yesenia had to work multiple jobs while going to school so that she could afford her room, board, tuition and books. This would be difficult enough for a top notch student - for someone who had yet to exhibit any academic success, this hurdle seemed almost impossible to scale in my estimation. But she promised to put forth the effort necessary so we supported her in that endeavor.
The reality was that Yesenia was a very bright young woman and exhibited the dedication necessary to both meet her work and school responsibilities. In 2001 she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Science as well as a multiple subject Teacher Preparation waiver to provide her direct entry into graduate school. Given her lack of support and effort prior to going to college, being the first person in her family to earn a college degree and enter graduate school was nothing short of remarkable.
One of Yesenia’s numerous jobs during her undergraduate years was working with disadvantaged elementary students to provide tutorial assistance and guidance. This experience convinced her that becoming a teacher was her calling, so she enrolled in the teacher certification program at San Jose State upon graduation.
As previously noted, I had been in contact with Yesenia throughout her college years and I had been biding my time hoping to get her to come back and work with “other Yesenia’s” back here at the Club. In 2003 I called and made her an offer: come back to San Pedro, finish off your teacher certification program at Cal State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and become the director of the fledgling “College Bound” program we had just started a year before. I knew she was capable of balancing both a full time position and going to graduate school – she had exhibited the same as an undergrad. Yesenia was the model for why we started the College Bound program in the first place – a teen with lots of potential, little support at home/school who just needed someone to care, support and motivate them each and every day. Yesenia had obviously “walked in the shoes” of those coming to our Teen Center which would both provide her credibility with her young charges and assist her in meeting their needs. This is why I wanted Yesenia to return so badly and she agreed.
Yesenia has thrived as our College Bound director and was the catalyst for its tremendous growth. The first year she headed the program there were “4” seniors enrolled who would go on to college. This year she has “54” seniors in the program and 44 have already committed to a two or four year college! She expanded the program to include besides daily tutorial support - case management, college application assistance, Writer’s Workshops, SAT & PSAT preparedness workshops, F.A.F.S.A. and other funding assistance application support, college visits, and SAT exam fee waiver support. She has grown the program to include well over 200 participants this year (including 80 “juniors”). Next year she will be working to expand this important College Bound program to both our Wilmington and Port of Los Angeles sites. Last but not least, that student who barely graduated high school with a 2.3 G.P.A. - she had “straight A’s” in her graduate classes while earning her teaching credential at CSUDH.
St. Jude is the patron saint of “lost causes”. Too often the teens we serve at the Boys & Girls Club are labeled as “lost causes” by far too many adults in our community. We developed our College Bound program to support all levels of students, but in actuality we target those who for the time being are average to below average achievers – many of whom are labeled as “lost causes”. This is so very important because due to lack of college counseling resources at our high schools, usually only the high achieving students receive the full attention they need – the “lost causes” who make up a large percentage of high school students are way down the list. This is why our College Bound program is so very different than any other college pathway program I have researched – for we give the teens who truly need our help the most the same services and support provided the highest achieving students. We have developed a program so that the late blooming Yesenia’s of today are given a real chance to reach their full potential.
Next week I will be attending Yesenia’s graduation from the Teacher Credentialing program at CSUDH and have the distinct pleasure to be one of the guest speakers. In reality though the ceremony is a bit anti-climactic, for Yesenia has already been a “teacher” for many years – guiding, cajoling and motivating young people just like her to believe in themselves and become in most cases the first in their family to attend college. She has dedicated herself to the teens who are anything but the “lost causes” too many others see. She knows first hand that the “Yesenia’s” of our world are many and they only need an advocate, a mentor, a taskmaster, a friend - a “teacher” who will believe in them each and every day.
Congratulations Yesenia on earning your teaching credential, but more importantly, for bringing hope and opportunity to many who are facing the same limitations you had growing up. Without you and College Bound, they would have little or no chance. Thank you for continuing on next year as our College Bound director – for you are both the original model and the engine for this most important program. Like St. Jude, you too firmly believe in what some see as “lost causes”. You too believe in the Yesenia’s of today who will become like you – the leaders of tomorrow.