I came from a nice middle-class family. In 1969 we moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. We were one of two LatinX families on our street. At 10 years old everything changed when my mother died. My only sibling (my sister) moved out 2 years later, and my father did what he could to raise me. Latch key kid by 12 years old. I was always looking for acceptance, fell in with the wrong crowd, moved out of the house when I was 17. I dropped out of high school my junior year with a 0.12 GPA. Within 6 months of my 18th birthday I got 2 DUI’s, spent my 19th birthday doing a 90-day sentence. Over the next 7 years I was in and out of jail. The last time I was arrested was in 1992, I did a total of 9 months, 3 outstanding warrants, 10 different counts, with one of them being my first minor possession of methamphetamine. While I was incarcerated, I received my GED through a Santiago Adult Education program that was offered. I also started to attend AA/NA meetings. Upon my release, I relocated into a sober living home. I applied for General Relief, and I was living on food stamps. I did not have a penny to my name. I began working in a restaurant as a server. I had always dreamed of going back to school, but the service industry took a hold of me. With my lack of education, the only thing I could do was to continue in the food industry business. I became a service manager, operational manager, General manager, and lastly a regional manager for a well-known restaurant chain. The money was good, but I was miserable. My quality of life was extremely unfulfilled. Still in the back of my head, I wanted a college education, but I never thought I was good enough or smart enough to learn with a 0.12 GPA my last semester in high school.
“Being at a UC has made all the difference in my life. Prior to attending college, I was doomed to work the rest of my life in the food service industry, unsatisfied, and miserable. It has given me a whole new outlook on life as I am now attending my last quarter before graduating with a BA in Sociology. The challenges of being a formerly incarcerated, non-traditional, alcoholic/drug addict, LatinX student was indeed my prerequisite for being who I am today.”
– Henry Dominic Rodriguez
In 2014 I attended my niece’s graduation from California State University Long Beach (CSULB). She received her master’s in teaching. This was the first college graduation I had ever attended. Neither my sister nor I ever graduated high school much less college. I saw individuals who were my age that were graduating. I was very envious of this; I wanted the same for myself. Being an alcoholic and an addict in recovery had gotten me into being a productive member of society, however I still suffered from low self-esteem still thinking I was not good enough to go to college. The stigma of being a convict, a drunk, and addict, with only 3 years of high school education had prevented me from seeking anything else than what I already was, a 47 year old man who worked 14 hours a day 5-6 days a week. I had the opportunity to enroll in a community college, and I made the decision that I would go, and graduate to receive my AA. At my community college, I was extremely self-conscious, often mistaken for a professor. There were no computers in schools when I was in high school. I did not know how to do homework online, had never been in a study group, did not know how to do research online, etc. There were very few my age. I soon acclimated, became a part of a mentorship program that helped other non-traditional students just like myself learn the ropes, and learn how to become a part of. It took me 3 years to complete, and I graduated with a 3.79 GPA. My graduation was the first graduation my 82-year-old father ever attended for any of his children.
My choice to attend a UC was not until my last semester of my community college year. Again, I thought it was out of my reach, that I was not smart enough, much less could afford it. (I was on FAFSA those 3 years). My EOPS counselor had informed me that my grades would allow me to attend a UC. I applied to UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UCI. I also applied for 3 Cal States just in case (remember low self-esteem). I was accepted to every school I had applied to. I chose UCI because it was close to my aging father, and the reputation superseded any other local college or university, and the School of Social Science’s academia was one of the best in the state. Being at a UC has made all the difference in my life. Prior to attending college, I was doomed to work the rest of my life in the food service industry, unsatisfied, and miserable. It has given me a whole new outlook on life as I am now attending my last quarter before graduating with a BA in Sociology. The challenges of being a formerly incarcerated, non-traditional, alcoholic/drug addict, LatinX student was indeed my prerequisite for being who I am today. Contrary action and learning how to ask for help were key, especially at my age (now 53).
Upon my enrollment at UCI and my first quarter, I found myself in the same spot I was in my very first semester of community college. Only exception was that there was no mentorship program to help me acclimate to my new university. It was then when a friend of mine who transferred with me saw a flyer for Underground Scholar Initiative @ UCI. I went to a presentation that was given to explain what USI was. When I saw that it was an organization for formerly incarcerated students in higher education, I knew I was home. It was everything that I had been looking for since my very first day of community college. The Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) at UC Irvine has allowed me to adapt to a new family in the UC system and at every other UC in the state. As a co-chair this past year, I attended a statewide convening that included members from every UC. We speak the same language; we face the same trials and tribulations regarding our pasts. We are truly brothers and sisters, and USI will be what I remember the most from my 5 years of college. I will be forever grateful to USI and I am excited to be a member of USI as a UCI alumnus.