Dr. Álvaro Huerta. From Tijuana to East Los Angeles to Academia: Life Lessons from a Scholar.” TEDxCPP, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (April 27, 2017)

Lessons for Success in Higher Education and Beyond

As I reflect on my early undergraduate years at UCLA, where I entered as a first-generation math major from the notorious Ramona 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.

Álvaro Huerta (far left in blue serape) at MEChA event (circa 1986)

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) — and 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)?

Good thing I self-promote!

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 the E.L.A. projects — something you know nothing about, like almost being killed by the cops for “driving while brown”— I could survive anything!”

Álvaro Huerta (right) and Salomón Huerta — Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
Álvaro Huerta in front of mural “Ghosts of the barrio” (1974) by Wayne Healy. Photo by Pablo Aguilar (2005)

Based on the above, I end with 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. Álvaro Huerta is an Associate Professor in Urban & Regional Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at California State Polytechnic University.

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