Sacrificing for Success: College and careers

The reason low-income families work so hard to stay in Pleasanton

When Kevin thinks about his future, he thinks about how nice it will be when he's able to afford a place for his mom and siblings to live on their own.

Kevin relishes the time he can spend at home, but often he's hours away at Chico State, more than halfway through his sophomore year studying nursing.

"I'm just really excited to start my career just so I can help my family out," the 20-year-old said.

Kevin is part of a small but resilient community. Low-income residents who live in Pleasanton often do so to keep their kids in the high-achieving Pleasanton Unified School District. Kevin and others in this article asked that their last names not be used to protect their parents who are undocumented immigrants.

To make ends meet, many rent out rooms in their small apartments, work multiple part-time jobs and accept donated food and clothing when possible.

The sacrifice isn't just for the pleasure of living in a safe, bustling suburb. It's for the moment when their children walk across that high school graduation stage.

Thinking back on that day, Kevin's mom Erica remembered the elation that filled her heart as tears streamed down her cheeks.

"It's like my graduation, too," she said. "I'm screaming like crazy. I cried and my kids clapped. My friend said, 'I've never seen anyone so happy.'"

For Angelica, an Amador Valley High alumna who attends San Francisco State, college was always part of the plan. Her parents didn't have much, but they gave her a certain set of expectations -- and the schooling to get there.

"I never doubted, 'Oh, maybe I'm not going to college,'" she said. "The conversation when I was a child was, 'You're going to college.'"

The oldest son

Kevin sees potential in his younger siblings, and he won't accept any less than a college education for them.

"It's the only way out, really," he said. "My mom wouldn't be really happy with anything else."

The family gathered in their Pleasanton apartment for Christmas, and after days of his siblings asking when he'd be home, Kevin walked through the door. As important as his studies are, he said these are the moments he cherishes.

He told them about college life, preparing them for the days when they'll be scouring university pamphlets. His long-term plan is pediatric nursing. He said it would be a joy to help a bright young kid get well to live out their full potential.

At first, growing up in the Pleasanton school system as a low-income student was tough. He couldn't afford the gadgets that were prerequisites for "coolness," and he brought his mom home food from the cafeteria on days when the monthly budget didn't stretch far enough.

"We grew up super close. We went through some struggles, but you just kind of get over it," he said. "She's crazy hardworking. She's like the hardest working person I've ever met."

But life improved, and Kevin said he found friends who didn't care about the type of shoes he wore or what was in his mom's bank account. They cared more about what was in his head and heart.

He joined the wrestling team at Foothill High and earned a small pile of medals. His teachers pushed him when he needed a nudge and supported him when he stumbled. He learned how to expect success from himself. Now at Chico State, he knows he can meet the mandatory 3.5 GPA for his scholarships.

"I'm very capable of that, even higher," he said.

He knows his siblings are capable, too. His brother, Angel, is in middle school but wants to be a businessman, a Realtor or an entrepreneur. Their sister Maria wants to be a doctor, Erica said. Their 5-year-old brother wants to be a mariachi singer or a baseball player.

Angel said he's considering joining his school's robotics club next year, and a wide smile crosses his face when he talks about the science labs he's working on in class.

"I think I set a good example for them," Kevin said.

Just like her

Angelica, 19, grew up on a quiet Pleasanton street in a home next to a park. She thought everyone lived in places where they could run to a swing set and fly as high as possible, where gravity was the only limit.

She didn't feel the weight of her parents' economic status until she began to ease into adolescence. She saw her dad work grueling hours and her mom brought in meager pay as a babysitter for other Hispanic working families.

"He goes out early, comes home later at night. He really only had Sunday off, so that was our family day," she said of her dad, who works in maintenance and landscaping. "Honestly, they always say, 'I don't want you to end up like me,' struggling, working all the time, not making enough money, having to work days that should be spent with family."

As a sophomore at San Francisco State, Angelica is on the path to being a child psychologist and wants to be a bilingual school counselor to help kids in her same situation.

She wants to "feel like I've done something and make my parents proud."

Over the years, she helped her mom care for children at their home, volunteered with their Catholic church's vacation Bible school and volunteered within the Hispanic community, trying to give what little she had to others who had less.

She began her schooling in the Valley View Elementary dual immersion program, and she has only happy memories of her youngest years there. Even when classes were tough, she appreciated the teachers who pushed her to be her best.

"I had a pretty good childhood," she said. "I love these schools. I'm really thankful that I came to these schools."

Schoolwork wasn't much of an issue, but social life was tough. In a world of Ugg boots and Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, she wore hand-me-downs and Goodwill's finest.

"I didn't know about brand names in middle school," she said.

Eventually, she stopped caring. She just shrugs when her friends go on vacation to Hawaii, knowing she'll be spending summer breaks working at a Pleasanton restaurant to afford textbooks and the little luxuries she buys herself, usually Urban Decay makeup.

"It feels good to be able to work for it," she said.

Her sister is also pursuing higher education, and their 16-year-old brother attends Amador Valley. Angelica's family is set on making sure he goes to college, too.

Long-term, she wants to be a school counselor to help children whose families share her story -- Spanish-speaking, alone, nervous. She said she knows how much they can achieve, if only they're shown a little grace.

Becoming 'somebody'

There's a theme among some low-income Pleasanton Unified parents. They want their children to be "somebody" -- to be the end of their family's cycle of poverty.

Kevin and Angelica said their families taught them kindness, empathy and strength against overwhelming odds, so their parents are already "somebody" to them. But some low-income parents said their dreams were stunted by a childhood of limited education, so they're fighting for their children's dreams instead.

"I'd be happy to see her become something, like a dentist," said Miguel Ornelas, father of elementary-age daughter and son in Pleasanton. "If they can go the way they're going right now with the help they have here in Pleasanton, they're going to be somebody. They can be lawyers. They can be dentists. They can work in a bank."

These children, once they grow out of being children, see their first priority as taking care of their families. They see themselves as the future breadwinners and role models for their siblings and neighbors. If they falter, they'll have to bear the cost of their siblings following that same path.

Gabina Sanchez, a low-income Pleasanton Unified parent, said her 11-year-old son William wants to be a businessman or a paleontologist.

"He'll tell me, 'One day, I'll have my own office. You're not going to have to work anymore,'" she said.

William just started middle school, but he said he knows middle school grades decide high school achievement, and high school grades determine college acceptances. So he pays attention in class and studies hard when he isn't helping his mom take care of his 4-year-old brother.

"My mom wants me to be successful in school, so I'm paying attention in school. And she wants me to go to a good college and get a good job," he said. "I really love her, and you should always love your mom."

Erica said she wants her kids to be successful, but she also wants them to cultivate their moral capital.

"When you're someone in this life, you need to help others," she said. "Right now, I don't have nothing, but I help others, and that's the best part. Even if I'm not rich, I can help others."

Kevin said it took him a while to realize the most valuable parts of his life couldn't be bought or earned.

"A couple of my friends who were really well-off, they never spend time with their families. They're really distant. You realize what matters is how much time you spend with your family and how much they love you," he said. "I just want to make my career happen and prove to her that everything she's done is worth it."

* Editor's note: This story is the final in a three-part series, "Sacrificing for Success," about low-income residents in Pleasanton who sacrifice to keep their children in the Pleasanton Unified School District.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by caywen
a resident of Del Prado
on Feb 26, 2016 at 8:19 am

caywen is a registered user.

Great kids and families; Wish them absolutely the best. They certainly worked hard for it. Also thankful that Pleasanton is welcoming for lower income families willing to do what it takes. I would like my kids to have friends like these.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Couples: "When Good People Have Affairs" by Mira Kirshenbaum
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,828 views

Edifice Mex
By Tom Cushing | 91 comments | 1,485 views

One of Pleasanton's "characters" passes on
By Tim Hunt | 2 comments | 817 views