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Chris Bonilla


From the Barrio to Barrister

Posted: 05/02/2013 5:46 pm

Never have I felt more grateful to be a YES Scholar than the moment I opened my acceptance letter from Columbia Law School. I stood there staring at the letter, elated yet frozen in place by the disbelief that overwhelms individuals when their dreams come true, as I reflected on the improbable course my life has taken. Columbia Law is a world away from my home in Lennox, California. Lennox is a rough neighborhood boxed in by freeways in a forgotten corner of Los Angeles County. Poverty and gangs are endemic. Votive candle memorials to slain gang-members are a disturbingly common sight along the cracked sidewalks. Every window has steel bars on it. Gunshots and the howl of police sirens are heard frequently.

Young people respond to the stress that an environment like this generates in a variety of ways. Many, sadly, turn to drugs or crime. Others join the military in order to get away. Some cope by dedicating themselves to intellectual endeavors. I include myself in this last category.

I was a voracious reader as a boy. Books provided me a mental escape from the harsh reality around me. I would read about far-off places and "travel" in my mind, even while my parents would not let me step outside out of concern for my safety. I immersed myself in reference books about dinosaurs, episodes of Nova, and sci-fi novels. They taught me that the world is full of wonder, even if my immediate environs were drab and depressing at best. My primary desire was to satisfy my otherwise-frustrated intellectual curiosity. Pragmatic concerns were secondary. However, by the time I reached middle school, I found that, as an added benefit, I excelled in the classroom. The prospect of one day leaving home for college, or being able to secure a job in something other than manual labor or retail or fast-food, became very tantalizing.

There are multitudes of young people just like me in communities like Lennox all across our country. I firmly believe that even in the most poverty-stricken, violent neighborhoods in America you will find bright students with a deep passion for learning. Very few of them will end up attending college. An even tinier number will ever make it to an institution like Columbia University, where I attended college as an undergraduate and where I hope to pursue my legal studies this fall, even if they have the intelligence, work ethic, and ambition necessary to succeed there. Why?

Obviously, this is an enormously complex issue that plays out differently depending on local factors. I argue that one major reason is the dearth of guiding lights available and willing to provide leadership to young people in the inner city. Growing up, other than my teachers, I knew very few people who had ever attended college. Many of my peers came from immigrant families that were completely unfamiliar with American higher education. The peer pressure to drop out was immense. Being a gangsta and making quick money dealing drugs was cool, studying physics and reading Voltaire was very much not. Popular culture did not help. Crime in the ghetto is both glamorized and stigmatized in the popular imagination. The ghetto kids studying for the SATs or diligently writing book reports on The Great Gatsby are, for the most part, absent from those narratives.

This is doubly tragic because our society does provide opportunities, even to those who come from the margins. Financial aid is available, as are scholarships. Overwhelmingly, the teachers in these neighborhoods have a sincere care for the students they teach. Colleges spend millions every year on recruiters and ambassadors to look for students like these. Yet many students remain ignorant to the fact that these avenues exist. Those that are aware often find the process of navigating this alien world alone, without the guiding hand of an experienced parent who can help them, too daunting. Settling for mediocrity is far easier. I know dozens of people my age who were disillusioned by the educational system and retreated to a quiet life of lowered ambitions.

So how did I escape this fate? Why was I able to take advantage of these opportunities while others find themselves unable? I had YES (Young Eisner Scholars) on my side. When I first met Eric Eisner, the founder of YES, I was immediately impressed. He had come to Lennox to find bright students and mentor them. He was not only very intelligent but, like me, was also motivated by a deep intellectual curiosity. He read about physics, studied history, and loved tackling challenging math problems. Not because he had to, but because he enjoyed it. Furthermore, contrary to the popular perception among some of my peers that school was for chumps, this guy was financially successful and had clearly lived an exciting life, in large part due to his intelligence and commitment to education. His mentoring program, YES, brought together like-minded students in a welcoming environment where being a bookworm was positively reinforced, rather than negatively reinforced through bullying and social ostracism.

When I was presented with the opportunity to further my education at a private secondary school, I jumped at the chance. It was frightening at first, especially because most of my fellow students came from backgrounds radically different from my own, but I had some notion of the person I wanted to become, I knew I had someone to help me if I stumbled, and I knew that this was an environment that would allow me to thrive.

When I graduated from Columbia with my BA, I returned home to discover that YES had grown considerably. There were now YES Scholars at Harvard, Michigan, UC Berkeley and many other fantastic colleges and universities. It was absolutely clear to me that this was one of, if not the, most important institution in my community. None of the other opportunities before me were as exciting as this, so I returned as an employee. YES had already made an impact on the individual level by providing several dozen students with life-changing opportunities. Now YES is making an impact on a larger, community-wide level by redefining the role that education plays in under-resourced neighborhoods. I see it every day. When younger students hear of older kids who attended college in New York City, or who studied-abroad in China, or who landed that dream job as an engineer, they are far less likely to fall victim to cynicism and desperation. The savviest of parents understand their own limitations in preparing their children for the future and they cooperate and work with YES.

As I prepare to head off for law school and I reflect on the ways in which YES has completely changed my life for the better, I know with certainty that the love of knowledge that Eric Eisner brought to Lennox was merely a catalyst for a self-sustaining reaction that young people like myself will carry forward into the future and pass on to many others in communities across our nation.