THE BLOG
06/17/2014 09:03 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Diplomas and So Much More

Among Angelenos getting high school diplomas this month are William Paz, 18 and Jorge Godinez, 19, while colleague Jonathan Felix, 23, works to complete his coursework. These young men comprise Michelle Miranda's Youth Policy Council at R.U.T.H. YouthBuild. Their courage and determination inspire us.

What does your diploma mean to you?

Jonathan: I would think, "What am I doing working, I need to get an education," when I came across this school. I was just walking down the street and I saw a big building that said YouthBuild. Ms. Miranda told me that they provide a high school education for free. I said 'Wow, this is my golden opportunity.' Getting my diploma is everything. It's just everything. My sister has hers, and now I'll be the second in my family. The other day I saw on Yahoo a 92-year-old-man who got his high school diploma. Don't give up, it's never too late to get your diploma! Whenever I'm feeling down I think about this man.

All the teachers here are committed. Even though students may be struggling in their everyday lives outside of school, I can see in the teachers' eyes that they want to help. Our teachers require that we show up, participate and have a positive attitude. When a school has that, it's amazing. There's nothing better than seeing a teacher want you to succeed. We have a beautiful thing going right here. The moment I enrolled with Ms. Miranda and was given my opportunity, I said, "I'm all in. It's pretty much my last opportunity and I'm going to take full advantage." She and all of the staff know that I'm here to do my thing. I am blessed and it's a privilege to be in YouthBuild.

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Jonathan Felix, far left: "Getting my diploma is everything. it's just everything."

What was a meaningful experience you've had here?

Willam: I'm really proud of engaging my community, in particular, being involved with the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council. That really moved me to be more active for people in my community who don't have access to resources. We found out people can go to the Neighborhood Council to request certain things. I never knew such a thing existed. When Jenny Portillo (Field Deputy from Councilman Blumenfield's office) gave out our certificates (for increasing voter turnout by 400 percent at neighborhood council elections), I was scoping everybody's reactions: "Me? A certificate from the city?" We were all in awe.

And who would have known that someone like me, under Deferred Action, gets to go to Sacramento, meet a state senator, and hear him tell us, "I'm just a kid from the hood!" We met Mayor Garcetti when he visited Canoga Park. Most students never get a chance to have a conversation with the mayor. He's a humble guy, too, pretty devoted to what he's doing.

If you went to all my old high schools and said I was about to graduate, the staff and my friends would have told you, "There's no hope for this guy!" Our graduation has transcended above and beyond just being a piece of paper. We have a whole different responsibility. We create the culture. We will definitely be motivation to our families!

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William Paz at Community Clean Up Day in Canoga Park.

Jonathan: I've never been part of a group like Youth Policy Council; it's a really good experience. I'm trying to get into it even more. Participating with students, talking with them, seeing how they're doing with Ms. Miranda, the teachers it's amazing. I reach out to some of the students who may not feel accepted, or who need a heart to heart.

How will you use your education in the future?

Jorge: If I could have graduated with my friends two years ago, I'd say, "No." This was a better experience for me. I don't regret anything. I'll participate in anything Ms. Miranda puts me in. I'll SAY yes for everything.

I'm running for a seat on the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council. I see things in the neighborhood that aren't good for youth -- a strip club on a downtown street, a sex toy shop, medical marijuana clinics, the homeless hanging around. It breaks my heart when I see homeless people. I know they're not eating or sleeping under a roof. It's hard for me to see that, and I want to find shelters for them. Being part of Youth Policy Council, we've met with so many great people, like the Neighborhood Council members. We went to Sacramento. We met representatives, senators, business people. I want to be a businessman. Being on the Youth Policy Council has opened a lot of opportunities.

I'd like to go into management or administration, and make a lot of money to give back to the community through grants, scholarships, homeless shelters, education... anything that would benefit youth. Probably ten years from now I'll be a millionaire, and I'd like to give back to the community of Canoga Park and to people who live in poverty. The beauty is being able to share. That's part of meeting people on the road. We are honored to be part of this program and to connect with Ms. Miranda, and the students and where they come from, and their every day struggles.

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Jorge Godinez, third from right, at the mayor's press conference: "I'm running for a seat on the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council. I see things in the neighborhood that aren't good for youth."

William: There will always be that kid like me, that kid who's out there, who needs that opportunity. I see myself involved on a personal level. Always.

I hope to be a teacher, to help build a new model for education. We need more relationships with the parents of the students. A model where I don't have to send a student to another program to get better, but I have the skills and experience to help students myself. What works here is our relationships with the teachers. I know them well, and they know me. These guys want to have conversations with us, we laugh about it, we make jokes, it's cool to hang out with them, they are fun and awesome.

Why didn't traditional high school meet your needs?

William: traditional high school didn't meet my needs for personal emotional support. As a high school student, I struggled a lot with alcohol, and a lot of teachers knew I was under influence, but they never got involved.

The programs after school were only for 'good kids.' I was a wanna-be popular kid, but only the kids with good grades, mommies and poppies and that kind of family, participated. Troublemakers like us, or the ones challenged with our academics, were not allowed in (afterschool enrichment) programs like LA Bridges. In middle school I loved art, hip-hop, music. But not everybody in high school can participate, and I couldn't. Also I wasn't really good with standardized methodology, those teachers who would just go into class and it would all be set up in front of you.

My lack of involvement in high school was so bad that I didn't even know I had the right to talk to a counselor. Here at YouthBuild, if somebody sees you're struggling, they won't put you on the spot in front of everybody, but they'll ask you if you're okay. Students don't get pulled out to talk or to find out what they need in traditional high school.

Jonathan: Well, obviously, age -- I'm 23. I've been to Opportunity School and Adult School, and they're expensive. It was hard for me to focus. I grew up just down the street, across from a park that was full of gangs and people selling drugs. When I was 15, 16, I would get in trouble. I was arrested a few times, put on probation. I'm just glad my record is clean now. I'm so thankful.

Jorge: I felt let down by teachers that didn't have any expectations for me because of my grades. Even my counselor said, "Dude, you're not going to be anything, look at your grades." I told him grades don't mean anything; I could be anything I want. He didn't believe me and I thought, "Maybe he's right, maybe I can't be anything." My friends were ditching school; it was a bad environment for me.

My dad was sent to jail for a year. That put me down because it wasn't his fault. They mistook him for someone else, and he was in there for a year. They said if it had really been him, he would be sent back to Mexico. I felt sad and depressed for a year. I didn't give school my best; my dad's situation held me back more.

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Jorge, William, and Jonathan conduct a student-led job interview.

Two of you are undocumented. What additional challenges did you face?

William: It's super hard in all aspects. Being undocumented has stopped me from a lot of things, like being able to travel. Except for our YouthBuild trip to Sacramento and school field trips, I've never been outside of the San Fernando Valley. I can't go back to my own country. I feel stripped of my roots and heritage. The majority of my family is in Guatemala; here it is just my mother and me. I slept at my friend Javier's. We went to a little baby shower, a Section 8 thing, a room this big packed with thirty-five people and they all knew each other, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I felt awkward. I enjoyed the experience, but there's no such thing in my experience as family gatherings. On my birthday it's just my mom buying my cake, there's nobody singing Happy Birthday.

I've never been to a doctor ever in my life. My mom uses her traditions to heal me -- Vicks and newspapers on my chest if I'm sick. I've never been to the dentist. I'm hoping to take advantage of Social Security. One of my goals is to not be content with the country just giving immigrants Social Security and work permits for two years. I am so thankful and content for that, but it's not a real Social Security, we can't vote with that, or apply for financial aid, we have to apply for AB540, which is state, not federal. Not having Social Security limits our education and health. I've never been to a dentist. I need braces. I'm affected by not having EBT -- I have friends who are documented and they don't have to worry about what they're going to eat today, they have a card and can go anywhere and get food.

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Getting out the vote. "Me? A certificate from the city? We were all in awe."

What have you learned here that you'd like to share with other educators?

William: I feel it when we have to give up on students. I take things personal when a student is dismissed here for various reasons. It hits me stronger. I was that student who was dismissed from so many schools -- Birmingham, Grant, Panorama. I know how it feels. They had good reasons at each of those schools to tell me, "You can't be here," things I'm ashamed of, but the giving up part: that's what I take strongly, when someone gives up on a student.

Teach us how to be a human being -- how to live. If it's coming to the end of the year, I don't know how many educators are bothered knowing a kid is not going to make it. But to have that pride and joy, seeing "This kid is the kind of kid I might have said is not going to make it, but he participated and he made it." Then we can honestly be comfortable in our consciences that this kid will get through, that we've done our job.

Jorge: Be patient. Connect with the person or student or anyone you are working with -- where does he come from? You don't know what he might be going through at the moment. Be open with each other.

Jonathan: Ms. Miranda is a workaholic. We always tell her that, she gets emotional, but she is a warrior. Listen to students. Sometimes they don't communicate as well, but most of the students, all they want is someone to listen and connect. Maybe not in that moment, but in time. Connect and be there for them. Most of the students here might not have a dad or a mom, but when they show up to YouthBuild and have that connection with one of their teachers, it means a lot and keeps them coming back.

Just pressing forward. Life throws curve balls, but we are just pushing, pushing.

For more information on R.U.T.H. YouthBuild.