This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
My name is Dr. Eric Lara, and you just watched the beginning of my story. This wake-up call happened in 1998, and was my initial introduction to college.
Persistence in Struggle
I grew up in a single-parent household, the older of two children raised by a Mexican mother in La Puente, California, a low-income Hispanic community. Although I struggled without familial support regarding my college education, and with living with low socioeconomic standards, somehow I always maintained the hope of becoming an engineer. I applied to California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) Pomona, but was initially denied admission due to low high school achievement (specifically my GPA and SAT scores). Despite this disappointment, I persisted and obtained conditional admission through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
From Engineering to Education
As mentioned in the video, after I was kicked out of and readmitted to Cal Poly Pomona, I continued to work toward my engineering degree. However, it was during my fourth year at Cal Poly, while serving as a Pre-collegiate Academic Development (PAD) tutor, that I discovered my passion for working with students. That experience changed my life forever. Since I was more than halfway toward completing my engineering coursework, I did not feel that it was the right time for a shift from engineering to education. But, I always kept the idea of working with students somewhere in the back of my mind.
After graduation I pursued what eventually amounted to a two-year career in the engineering industry before I followed my heart and changed career paths entirely, moving into student affairs back at Cal Poly Pomona. Immediately, I knew I had made the right decision. I was invigorated, excited and motivated to work with students who were just like I once was: determined to be engineers, but also searching for a bit of guidance.
I worked with underrepresented engineering students as the Retention Coordinator and Academic Advisor for the Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP) program for five years. During that time I also served as the Principal Investigator for the NSF-Louise Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) grant and a lecturer for the Introduction to Engineering/First Year Experience courses. It became a true joy to go to work every day, advising, befriending and listening to students and being able to talk about my own college lessons learned; the entire experience ignited a fire in me that I never knew existed. I loved seeing the realized potential of so many brilliant, young minds, and I wanted them to continue their pursuits of learning. I became an advocate for STEM science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, as well as the importance of research experience and graduate school.
Tackling New Educational Challenges
Once I realized that education was the path for me, I wanted to practice what I preached, and soon found myself pursuing a master’s degree in education at Cal Poly Pomona, and then a doctorate in education with an emphasis in higher educational leadership from the University of Southern California. I had always known I wanted to go to college, but I never expected to pursue anything beyond a bachelor’s degree. And, while my mother supported my quest for higher education, she didn’t truly understand why I wanted to keep going to school, year after year. My greatest cheerleader has always been my wife, Erica, who helped me believe that I was capable and destined to get to where I am today. My next biggest cheerleaders were my students. I knew I could not convince them of the importance of graduate school if I was not willing to tackle this challenge myself; and, I knew that my students could not convince me that it was impossible if I could show them that the fight is worth it.