Monday, May 7, 2012

An immigrant's journey to becoming a White House Executive: my interview with José Rico

If you watched my recent blog on the value of international students, you know I'm a huge admirer of students who come to the U.S. without knowing any English. I am astounded by them.

I recently interviewed one such individual who shared with me his hardships in coming to America, and how the mentors in his life and his passion for education helped him go from being placed in special education classes because he spoke Spanish to his appointment to the position of executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

José Rico moved from Mexico to Chicago with his family when he was seven years old. His elementary school did not have a bilingual education program; thus, he was put in special education classes because no one knew how to communicate with him. 

It's easy to understand why, as a child, José "hated school." 

He shuffled along in classes without learning much. "There weren't a lot of teachers who looked like me that I, or many of my classmates, could relate to."

"Like most immigrant parents, my parents got me ready for school everyday  and hoped for the best." Unfortunately,  it wasn’t just the communication barriers made it very difficult to bridge the gaps.  There were low expectations and a misunderstanding of Latino families.

"The school would send letters home in English, but my parents couldn't read them.  My parents’ worked long hours and very little was done to include them in their children’s education.  The biggest parent turnout was during class picture day. It usually happened towards the end of the school year and signaled a transition to the next grade.  Since we didn't have money to buy class pictures either, so all of the pictures from my childhood have the word 'proof' written across my face."

José laughed when he said this, and so did I.

But he didn't laugh much in his younger years. School continued to be a struggle as he got older and went to middle school. 

Then, one teacher made a difference in eighth grade, Mr. Tibitt.   José confirms: "If it hadn’t been for him, I think eighth grade would have been my last year in school."

When José was in 9th grade, tragedy struck.

José often walked to school with Ramon, his best friend in South Side of Chicago; one day, as they made their daily trek, his best friend was suddenly shot and killed by someone who had wrongly believed José's best friend was a gang member.  

"Unfortunately that happens too often," José said.  

Seeing his best friend killed before his eyes made school even harder. José was devastated. However, the tragedy led to the biggest turning point in his life: His eighth-grade teacher reached out to him again. Seeing José's struggle, this teacher arranged for José to get transferred to a magnet school—the kind of school his parents would never have known about.

José excelled in a school that really supported and guided its students in preparing for college; this is something José believes was essential in making him the first in his family to go to college.

Due to this supportive environment, José did very well in math and science, and scored well on the college entrance exams. This led to his acceptance at every college his counselor asked him to apply to, such as Harvard. 

However, choosing which college to attend was "easy" for José. He chose the University of Illinois because they gave him a guaranteed full ride scholarship. He would have had to pay $3,000 a year to attend Harvard. At the time, when his family was paying around $1,000 a year in rent, asking them to spend three-year’s rent in one year for his education was unimaginable.

José fell in love with University of Illinois. "The campus is huge and, growing up in the barrio, it was the nicest thing I'd ever seen in my life. You only had to share a room with one person; you could eat whenever you wanted, as much as you wanted; and you had free time after going to class just three hours a day! I had access to the latest technology, became friends with people from all over the world and had a world of possibilities open. I thought I had made it."

But once again, José found there weren't a lot of professors or students who looked like him. 

"I started to think: Wow, why don't more Latinos get to experience this privileged existence? So many of my friends who were smarter and more talented than me and who were really good people didn’t have the chance to go to college. I wondered: Why aren't they here too? It became an issue of equity for me."

Indeed, today, of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. over 25, only 14 percent have a bachelor’s degree.

One of the best parts about college is that it can be a place where your thinking expands and you can discover innovative solutions to the world’s problems. The best students often take action; that's what José did. He organized students to fight for a Latino studies program at the University of Illinois. Today it is one of their hallmark programs. 

José graduated from college with a degree in engineering. He had chosen the field because, "Back then, engineering was the way to get to the middle class and help your family; you could make $50,000 a year, which today would be close to $100,000."

So he got an engineering job after college. As José put it: "I was bored."

That summer, he volunteered to become a math and science tutor for high school students. "I fell in love with the idea of teaching; I wanted to contribute to the world by helping kids just like me go to college and have possibilities."

Much to the chagrin of his friends and family, José left engineering to become a high school science teacher in his old Chicago neighborhood.

"I went back to my old neighborhood because I knew that so many people in my community come from a world without possibilities; they can't see possibilities in front of them."

Many people thought José was crazy for leaving engineering for teaching. "At the highest point in my career I made $19,000 a year."

However, José had found a passion that was impossible to ignore; because of that, he brought possibility to this community.

In addition to being a high school teacher, José started a youth leadership program that trained students to find the other services they needed to make it through school (e.g., childcare, summer jobs, legal services, free clinics). His program caught the attention of Public Allies, where he trained young people to work in public service. 

After getting two master's degrees and becoming more involved in education training and access, José participated in a hunger strike to start a new high school: Chicago's Multicultural Arts High School. He was named the principal. 

In 2009, "My boss Michelle, from Public Allies, called me and said 'Hey do you want to come to D.C. and do some work with us?’ I said yes."

At this point I was so rapt with José's story that it wasn't until he talked for another 60 seconds that I had to interrupted him to ask: "wait, hold on a second, do you mean the Michelle? Michelle Obama was your boss at Public Allies?"

He said yes.

Today José works for the White House to "ensure that there are more Latinos who go through the education pipeline successfully so they can receive a quality preschool education all the way to college." As executive director, he advises President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on education policies and programs on how to best introduce and incorporate them into the Hispanic community.

"The Latino community places a high value on education, but the challenge is the lack of information, the coordination of resources to support things that work, and the leadership to make things happen a day-in and day-out ."

José has seen and heard many success stories, having visited more than 120 cities across the country to consult with leaders and gather feedback on what these communities need. 

One such success story involves Mayor Julian Castro, San Antonio, Texas, who made it a priority to raise the numbers of college graduates from 100,000 a year to 200,000. With a counselor ratio of 420-1, San Antonio has developed an innovative idea—a place called Café College located in the heart of downtown that provides free resources to help people get to college.

José believes many colleges are not equipped to give the support first-generation students desperately need. He said that both he and I "were lucky, because we had someone reach out to help us...but we shouldn't have to rely on that." 

This is so key. The primary reason I wrote my book was to give students the tools they need to find those people for themselves. We are so thankful for the teachers who reach out, and we should all be reaching out. However, we must also teach students to reach out for themselves, and understand the importance of having a strong community to help them thrive in college.

I can honestly say I've never been more personally inspired than when I talked to José on the phone. There aren't many principles I need to draw out for you because they are all so poignantly weaved throughout his story—his life

Notice the issues in the world around you while you're in college. Latch on to those that move you. Move forward no matter what people think. Take action. Do what you do best, and serve.

Follow the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics on Facebook.

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