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College Bound: My Road from Watts to UCLA
Ryan Maquiñana was a Teach For America corps member when he first met Ricardo Govea in his fourth-grade class. Nine years later, Ricardo got in touch to talk about his college applications.
“You have a call from someone at X Correctional Facility. If you would like to accept the call, dial 5 now. If not, hang up now.”
I’ve heard that recording over the phone so many times. I always hit 5 so I can talk to who’s calling. Sometimes the voice at the other end of the line has been my father. Sometimes, it’s my mother. For all but three years of my life growing up in South L.A., at least one of my parents has been incarcerated. For the last two and a half years, it’s been both.
I’ll admit, when my mom joined my dad on the inside, there were times when I cried, fumed, and screamed. Even in the brief moments when she’s allowed to call home and make me feel like we’re a family again, it only takes a couple of minutes before our connection gets interrupted by a harsh reality check:
“You are on the phone with someone in prison. This call may be recorded for later use.”
Despite the interruptions, one recent call was special. I had a chance to say two things I had envisioned telling her over the years:
- Your firstborn son was just accepted by his dream school—UCLA.
- You don’t have to worry about tuition money because almost all of it will be covered by grants and scholarships.
Getting on the Bus
In one week, I’ll officially become an adult, and not long after that, I’ll graduate. In the fall, I will take my place at UCLA. My road to see this day was a long one, and I’m writing this for kids and teachers from my area to show it can be done. You can either rise above all the adversity or just slip through the cracks. Getting here has been dependent on what I’ve done in the classroom and my focus outside of it, no matter how hard things might get. Along the way, several people, especially my teachers, have helped me gradually get equipped for college.
I started believing in my ability as a student in third grade at 109th Street Elementary School in Watts when I began to win all of Ms. Eddy’s multiplication table class competitions. From that point forward, my confidence grew to where I could see myself attending a prestigious university one day.
When I reached fourth grade, school was coming to me too easily and it showed a little bit in my demeanor. My teacher, Mr. Maquiñana, gave me a fifth-grade book to complete along with my regular assignments and made me explain my answers during after-school tutoring. I think it was his way of keeping me engaged so I didn’t drift off. The book was heavy on math, which he knew was my favorite subject. It was from him I began to realize the value of striving for more than the minimum.
Two years later, he and another teacher, Mr. Garcia, convinced my mom that I should enroll in the sixth-grade magnet program at Curtiss Middle School, which meant I’d have to take the bus every day from Watts to Carson. I wondered why they didn’t just let me go to the nearby school, but I thrived in the rigorous math and science classes at Curtiss, and eventually became the valedictorian. Now I understood why they steered me there.
Help From an Unlikely Source
Unfortunately, it was around this time when my father, who had recently been released from jail, ended up going back in after just four months, leaving my mom to take care of my brothers and me. I felt like I had to tell someone. Luckily, I made friends with my classmate Maria, and for some reason, she made me comfortable enough to tell her.
Based on our time at Curtiss, Maria and I both achieved our goal of getting into King/Drew Medical Magnet High School, which meant we got to stay in Watts this time. During my sophomore year, my mom made a bad decision in the way she tried to support our family and joined my dad behind bars. While my brothers and I were lucky that my grandma was around, the challenges of paying rent, keeping food on our dinner table, and staying emotionally stable got tougher for us.
When Maria found out, her parents took me in and helped me out whenever they could, whether it was something simple like inviting me to dinner, or just being there when I needed a safe place to talk about life.
Speaking of My Life...
In many ways, my living situation isn’t ideal. First, the place where my brothers and I live isn’t the safest of areas. You don’t want to be outside after dark. The sound of sirens could be heard at any time. The other night we were evacuated from the building because it caught fire, and no one could really determine why. A couple different gangs have tried to recruit me before (I respectfully declined), and that’s just something that happens in our neighborhood.
Inside the apartment, I face just as many obstacles. The closet in my room is so damaged from the previous owners that I can’t use it. Instead, I have a big plastic bag for all my clothes. The room itself is so small that I don’t have a desk, either. As a result, I’ve been doing all my assignments on my bed since elementary school. Because I don’t have a computer or printer, my only chance to type or print any of my homework is either at school or at Maria’s house—when she’s free.
Who I Am
Despite saying all that, I’m proud of where I come from. I don’t have the money to pay for personal tutors. I don’t have both my parents right now. But I know how badly I want to reach my goals, and how an education from a quality university will give me the best chance to get a good job. With everything that’s happened to me, I don’t see the benefit in dwelling on the negative. You have to train yourself to find the bright spots and see how you can change your life in a positive way.
This mentality has shaped my personality and my actions. Because I’ve never had things handed to me, I’ve learned to be more proactive in finding services and resources. Instead of letting things at home consume me, I’ve kept myself busy by joining as many clubs as I could to see how I could grow as a person. Right now, being a peer counselor has empowered me as a leader in helping others with their academic schedules so they can make the most out of their education.
Most of all, this mentality has made me want to transform the way people outside Watts view our community. I recently attended a financial aid seminar in another part of town. The volunteer asked me where I was from and to give him my GPA and test scores. When I answered him, he was shocked. To be clear, he was nice and helped me, but I’ll never forget the pause and look he gave me. It was as if he asked me “How did you do that?” without moving his lips. To me, it showed the stereotypes some people have for students from my area.
Did it make me angry? Again, the answer is no. I use it as motivation every day. There are kids from Watts who do just as well as me academically, if not better. In a way, I feel like I did my part to change his mind about kids like me and what we’re capable of doing.
High School Lessons
One thing I’ve discovered in high school is that everyone has different ways of learning, but we all want the same things out of the people who educate us. For example, I’ve had a couple teachers who tried too hard to be buddies with the students, and that doesn’t resonate with me. They were so lenient that they didn’t have control of their classrooms. I’ve seen teachers who you could tell didn’t put in the effort to really master the subject because they would only teach the lesson from the book. As a student, you’re not always going to learn things on the first try, and if your teacher doesn’t find an alternative way to communicate to you, you can get lost for the whole year.
On the other hand, I think of Dr. Graeber (AP Microeconomics/Government), Ms. Gomis (French), Ms. Bocande (Physics), Mr. Monaco (AP Language), and my counselor, Ms. Golden, as fitting that vision of what adults at a school should be like.
They bring that personal connection and treat me with respect as a young adult, and not a child. For example, instead of just telling me to stop acting a certain way, they explain why my behavior is unacceptable. They have high expectations for us and make us want to expect that out of ourselves. They expose us to experiences outside of class. This past year, Mr. Monaco went out of his way to get me to apply to the Riordan Scholars Program and AEG Job Shadowing Program, and both have really helped open doors to how much bigger the world is. They believe we will go to college and prosper, so we do, too. I think every student needs that, no matter where you’re from.
Sharing My Success
My road to get to this day has been tough, but it’s rewarding to see my hard work being rewarded with acceptance letters and financial aid packages from eight universities, including UC Berkeley. Since I’ve had one dream college since middle school, as soon as I learned UCLA accepted me, my hands were numb with immediate happiness.
Once I regained feeling in my fingers, I thought about who I should call first. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and called my dad, who was released from prison about a month ago.
I haven’t had much of a relationship with him because of all the time he missed and the premature adulthood he caused, but it felt good to hear the pride in his voice when I told him the news. We even joked that his absence gave me something to write about for my personal statement. Anyway, I’m still approaching everything with caution, but I’m optimistic that my achievements will inspire him to make the most of his recent freedom and be the father I’ve always hoped for.
I was 15 when my mom went away. As disappointed as I am in her for doing what she did, she’s still my mom, and I have no doubt how much she cares about my brothers and me. She was always there for us, and not a day has passed where we don’t miss her.
When I finally got to speak to her a couple days later, I wanted to share everything. I wanted so badly for her to be just as excited as me. So, I started to tell her that her firstborn son, with everything stacked against him, refused to give up and is UCLA bound. But then I heard this:
“You are on the phone with someone in prison. This call may be recorded for later use.”
The celebration was bittersweet, but I was told there might be a chance that she could be released early on good behavior. Apparently, her hearing is coming up before my high school graduation. I’d be grateful if that opportunity presented itself, but if not, I’d be content with having her first trip back outside being a tour of my freshman dorm.
No matter what happens, I’m going to stay the course and continue to focus on my dreams. I’ve come this far. Why stop now?
If you would like to help Ricardo offset some of his freshman year costs, visit his GoFundMe page.