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 to read and write at the university level — 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 B.A. in History with a 3.56 GPA.

This led me to earn my master’s degree in Urban Planning at UCLA (on full academic fellowships), where I graduated top of my class with a 3.96 GPA (being robbed of the top department award!). I then pursued my Ph.D. degree in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley (on full academic fellowships, including a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship), where I graduated with a 3.86 GPA. Berkeley happens to be the # 1 ranked public university in the world,

Did I mention that I’m an Associate Professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (or Cal Poly Pomona)?

Moreover, did I mention that I’m a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at Harvard Divinity School (2021–2022)?

Good thing I self-promote!

During all my years in higher education, several professors “fondly” informed me in person and via email that I didn’t belong. Their racial micro-aggressions were loud and clear: “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 gibberish.

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 East Los Angeles — something they know nothing about, like almost being killed by the cops for “driving while brown”— I could survive anything!”

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

To conclude, I end with the following lessons for success in higher education and beyond (not ranked):

Be bold.

Be brave.

Take action.

Adapt to new or unfamiliar environments.

Dare to take risks without fear of failure.

Without failure, there can be no success.

Learn from your mistakes.

Transform failures into successes.

If you’re a racialized minority, you must work twice as hard (or more) to succeed in this country.

Don’t be afraid to seek help.

Only successful people seek help.

Master the rules of the institution or game.

Apart from your family, prioritize your education/degree(s).

Be committed and diligent with your academic studies; you have the rest of your life to work, socialize and play.

Don’t let others validate your self-worth.

Always believe in yourself, unless you’re being bad.

Never give up!

Dr. Álvaro Huerta is a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow at Harvard University and an Assoc. Professor at Cal State Polytechnic University, Pomona.