Adan Gonzalez has an exceptional story to tell. He just finished his sophomore year at Georgetown University, and in addition to a number of other extracurricular activities, is the founder and CEO of the Si, Se Puede network, ambassador of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and new Intercollegiate Boxing Champion. Impressive, but so are thousands of Georgetown students. What makes Adan's story so extraordinary is where he comes from.
Adan grew up in a small, impoverished Mexican-American community in Dallas, Texas. Some of his most vivid childhood memories are of watching his parents in the living room discussing whether they'd be able to pay the rent, or watching Child Protective Services take friends away from their parents. Adan watched as kids he knew his whole life dropped out of school to join gangs, or become drug dealers. Adan watched as he and the rest of his classmates who decided to stay in school sat on the floor because there weren't enough desks.
Adan speaks candidly about his childhood because he thinks no child in America should have those kinds of experiences. He thinks our nation’s young adults all have dreams but too many turn their backs on them too early in life, either for financial reasons or for lack of leadership. Adan thinks the system is broken, and he wants to fix it. He wants everyone to not only believe in the power of higher education, but for everyone to know the challenges it takes to get there, whether it's from Oak Cliffs to Georgetown or not, and how to overcome them.
Adan founded Si, Se Puede to provide students with advice, encourage volunteerism, and help young adults transition into leadership positions. He was 10 years old when he had his first job, selling movies and snacks at the local flea market to earn his own money for a school uniform. Now he feels a responsibility to help other students find opportunities to reach their potential. This is his story.
Caira Conner (CC): You're the son of two immigrants. What kind of support did you have growing up to push beyond the limited opportunities that were available to you? Can you shed some light on what motivated you during particularly dire circumstances?
Adan Gonzalez (AG): My father is a man of character, a man who intimidates me with just a glance, a man whose humor makes me laugh at anything. My mom is a sweetheart, a woman who argues with me about my room being dirty, but who takes care of me when I'm sick. They both worked two jobs when I was growing up, and now I understand that their exhausting efforts are what kept food on our table. My parents never gave up, and watching them work through challenges taught me that nothing is impossible, as long as I was willing to work.
Years ago, my parents made the choice of teaching me and my brothers Spanish and making it our first language at home, even though we were born in the U.S. My accent was formed and when I enrolled in school my dad made sure I was still learning Spanish. After years of practicing and struggling in both languages, I finally learned to speak, read, and write in both Spanish and English. I later asked my dad why he felt learning English as a second language was the best choice. His reasoning was:
1. I could help you with homework.
2. You will be able to communicate with your non-English speaking family.
3. You will be able to help me out when I need a translator.
4. You need to know the language society is going to accept.
5. It will be easier for you to know your roots.
After this conversation I went back to my room, smiling the whole way. My dad didn't know at the time, but because he chose for us to be bilingual, he gave us an edge over the English-only competition.
CC: Si, Se Puede emphasizes community service. How does community engagement translate into higher grades and professional ambitions?
AG: It has been six years since I became old (and good) enough to help my boxing coach train others. We practice in Dallas, and I volunteer as a mentor for the younger group at the center. I work with kids ranging from 6-12 in the after-school program for two hours a day, five days a week, and I never quite know what to expect. But I learn something new from them every day. If I am not helping them inside the ring, I am helping the kids with homework or any problems that they might have at home. I am the youngest volunteer at the center, which helps because I can still relate to any issues they might have. I hope the kids know, from the little girls who call me “big brother”, to the little boys who tell everyone “Adan is my friend,” each and every one of them has made me a better person.
CC: Your story is incredibly inspirational, and unfortunately, pretty exceptional. The reality is that there are many children from similar backgrounds who didn't, and won't, make it all the way to Georgetown. What's the best way to connect with younger generations on the importance of higher education?
AG: A lot of young people do not expect much from being a student, or they believe that school is a facility in which to kill time. I believe that in order to improve student performance and better urban districts, it needs to start with the faculty creating an environment that students feel comfortable in, and give students exposure to the world outside their neighborhoods. Students need a voice on what can be done to stop the bureaucracy of our educational system. I do not mean having parties, showing movies, or going on field trips every week, but actually showing students as a faculty you care for that individual regardless of their academic work. The best way to connect with younger generations is show them that education is freedom.
When students have to bring in printing paper as extra credit so that teachers can print notes, it is clear that a lot of education issues cannot be handled because of lack of funding.
I am now in my second year at Georgetown University, and the reason this happened is because I won over a million dollars in scholarships to cover my education through graduate school. I am no one special. I received an ESL education at James Bowie Elementary. I went on to the Atwell Law Academy and then the W.H Adamson High School.
I did not have straight A’s and I also received a couple of detentions just like any other student. But my community service and leadership opportunities opened new doors for me. I learned to find mentors, to receive moral support, and to find undivided attention from board members who made it clear that they believed in me.
To whoever has the opportunity to read my opinion, I invite you to agree or disagree with it. The beauty of having the opportunity for higher education means I will continue to learn and grow. I call on superintendents and boards of trustees across the country to be willing to work hands-on with students and not just pose for pictures.
I want teachers and principals to believe in their students because we can only accomplish what you allow us to take on. Parents and students need to remember that nothing about higher education is easy, but everything about it is worth it.
CC: You want to eventually become Mayor. Where, and why?
AG: I dream of being in a position to help not just my family, but my whole community. In elementary school, the most memorable experience I had was in second grade. My teacher made a class of 32 students stand up, then he instructed 10 students to sit down. He told us that only 22 would go to high school. Then he instructed 10 more to sit down, and he said only 12 will graduate high school. Then, he instructed 10 more students to sit down, and only left a girl and myself standing. He said only two of us would go to college, and then he had the girl sit down, and I was left standing alone. He said I would be the only one to graduate from college. He was trying to show statistics on the lack of minority representation in college. That exercise helped confirm in my mind what I was supposed to do, what was expected of me.
Although this experience was a harsh one, it pushed me to work harder. Everyday, I remind the students I mentor that a higher education is their only option! The only way we can move forward as community is by pushing each other, and growing together. We can all make a difference, so that 32 of 32 students will remain standing.
For more on Adan, his story and Si, Se Puede, follow him on Twitter: @campeon_SSP