Evelyn Almaraz calls herself a dreamer, a Puentista, a reinvention, a creator, and a giver of hope. Descriptions she earned and values.
“’Who are you?’ I’ve been asked this question more than once, and every time it causes me to pause and really think about it,” says the Norco College student who is headed to UC Berkeley in fall 2015.
Statistically speaking, Almaraz is part of a minority group—born of immigrants parents, the first in her family to attend college. While she embraces her heritage, she says is so much more than a statistic.
Almaraz wasn’t a high school standout; she was comfortable in the middle of the pack, earning a 2.9 GPA. Until she decided to reinvent herself.
“Having witnessed my parents’ struggles, I knew that life was not for me,” she says. She chose Norco College as her place of rebirth.
“I was a Puentista, a proud member of the Puente Program. Dr. Zina Chacon (Puente counselor) taught me how to dream, to aim higher and reach my potential. It was a potential that I didn’t even know existed.”
Following Chacon’s advice to “fake it until you make it,” Almaraz walked around campus telling everyone she was going to transfer to Cal. At the time it felt like an empty boast rather than a promise.
“My second year at Norco I created a future by literally practicing what I preached,” Almaraz explains. “I became a student worthy of applying even to UC Berkeley.
In this, her third year at Norco College, Almaraz is a giver of hope.
She was accepted into every UC to which she applied including Cal and UCLA. Her achievement is proof, not an outlier statistic in some database, she says. Proof that “coming from nothing, never implies our future is doomed. We are not victims, we are the baby turtles making our way to the ocean. We can make that journey.”
At age six, Christopher Gonzalez decided he had to take care of himself. He never knew his father and his mom, who often worked days and nights to support the family, wasn’t around much.
Yet every night, when she got home from work, she would tell him, “I love you, son. You’re the most important person for me and I will never let you down in the good or bad days.”
Gonzalez held onto those words, but in the dark hours of too many sad nights spent alone, the pain seeped in.
At age 10, his life turned darker. He did drugs to forget his problems. Drugs tied him to a gang. Gangbanging led to a detention center. In eighth grade, Gonzalez dropped out of school and deeper into the violence on the streets of Hunting Park.
“I did not see a future for myself. I saw myself in jail or worse,” he said. “I was invisible to society. Nobody believed in me so I stopped believing in myself.”
He will never forget the life-changing moment where despair turned to determination. A friend took a bullet from a rival gangbanger’s gun that Gonzalez knew might just as easily found him instead. Running from the scene, he made a decision.
“I didn’t want that life anymore…alone with no family or real friends. I decided to change my life and future.”
A cousin in Corona provided a safe place to stay and an opportunity for Gonzalez to finish high school. He attended Centennial High, working hard to earn enough credits to graduate.
“I hardly would ever sleep or eat. My only focus was making sure to successfully complete my work, which allowed me to graduate with my diploma,” he remembers. “Now, I am the first one to attend college in my family.”
Gonzalez will graduate from Norco College this June and plans to transfer to CSU San Bernardino to earn a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, followed by a master’s degree. He says Norco College is the foundation of his education.
“Norco College and the Puente Program has given me the opportunity to grow as a student,” says the future college counselor. “College was not easy, but I was determined to change the way I thought, the way I study, and to become more independent. I have learned to always appreciate the things I have and not (regret) the things I don’t have.”
As someone who went down the wrong road, made a U-turn and found solid footing on a new pathway, Gonzalez shared this advice: Never quit in what you believe in. Build yourself up and be determined not to give up your dreams.
“We all deserve a second chance,” he said. “I got one and am thankful…I will always remember where I started.”
As a teenager, Kevin LaMantain could pound a nail, measure a compound woodcut, and hang a door, but he never deciphered the blueprint that led to college.
An undiagnosed learning disorder prompted him to drop out of high school early. His carpentry skills landed a him a job, a decent hourly wage kept him driving screws, and any thoughts of finishing high school and going to college got swept up with the sawdust at the end of the day.
“Nothing I had ever learned dispelled the notion of how impossible and expensive going to college would be,” said LaMantain, who moved from carpentry to line construction, auto customization and countless other jobs, always jumping after two or three years. “By the time I became an adult with my own children, the idea of going to college had become an opportunity that I considered was for others more privileged than myself.”
His early years contributed to the disconnect. LaMantain grew up in a household with older parents, both exhausted from having raised a large family, his father disabled. While his parents encouraged him to go to college, they hadn’t attended themselves and had no understanding of the financial planning and preparation required.
One day, LaMantain bought a book about how to go to college. He still regrets that decision.
“It obviously wasn’t written for prospective students. One chapter talked about preparing academically by the seventh grade; another about starting a college savings account for your child. It was probably one of the most discouraging factors in me not going back to school.”
A later visit to a local community college guidance office didn’t help either. “It was as if the counselor and I spoke different languages,” LaMantain said. “It may sound too simple but one of the most difficult challenges to overcome for reentry students, adult students or anyone enrolling for the first time is figuring out how to apply and enroll, and the difference between the two.”
LaMantain finally found answers to his own questions while researching a plan for his oldest child to attend college. He discovered the Equal Opportunity Programs & Services (EOPS) program at Norco College. The program is specifically designed to meet the needs of first-generation college students and those from low-income families.
“EOPS counseling directed me to other services that led me to overcome learning disabilities that had frustrated me in school as a young person and dispelled every objection I ever had about going to college,” said UC Berkeley-bound LaMantain. “I took every class seriously as if it was the last opportunity I’d ever have. I knew that at my age as a single parent the idea of redoing a class or getting a substandard grade weighed the odds against my success.”
His hard work and determination carried him through preparatory classes, requirements for the Transfer Alliance Guarantee, and positioned him as an excellent candidate for UC admission. “Even the sky doesn’t seem to be the limit anymore,” he said.
As graduation from Norco College nears, LaMantain is planning his next steps as an English major entering Cal in the fall and exploring a personal calling toward researching Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“At Norco College, I learned that an education can transform a person’s life. An education is so much more than you hope it is going to be. The challenges that I’ve faced have given me a great life, and it just keeps getting better.”
The man who replaced a hammer with a book and took a different path in life says that while his story may be unusual, there is nothing special about him. “Anyone can do this, and I hope anyone who has ever thought about it, does.”