Ambitious and Undocumented

Ambitious and Undocumented: California's Future Engineers

Written by Stefani Robnett
When Ivan Vegas’ mother smuggled her two children across the US-Mexico border fifteen years ago, she was fully aware of the obstacles ahead of her. To become successful in the United States would be a challenge because she would have to work multiple jobs under difficult conditions while staying under the radar. Getting caught would mean being deported back to Tlaxcala, Mexico. However, trying to make ends meet in the United States was incomparable to attempting to do the same in Tlaxcala, where job opportunities were scarce to say the least.

Ivan’s mother also realized that in order for her children to become assimilated into American culture, they were going to have to go to school and learn English. With that, she enrolled Ivan and his little brother in the nearest public school.

Leo’s parents also made the dangerous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border from their home in Mexico. Leo was only five years old the day he first stepped on U.S. soil. His parent’s original intentions were to work and save enough money in order to eventually return to their homes and families in Monterrey Nuevo Leon. However, the backlogged immigration processing systems made this goal challenging. Furthermore, the developing drug-war in Mexico was turning potentially life-threatening for even the average citizen. Upon realizing that returning was no longer an option, Leo’s parents quickly enrolled him in the nearest elementary school.

Leo and Ivan crossed paths when the two joined the Engineering and Design Career Pathways Academy together.

Linsay Burkhart and Truman Robnett, the current co directors of the Engineering Academy, presented Leo and Ivan with the possibility of joining the program. After demonstrating interest to the faculty, the students would have to complete a rigorous application process. Upon acceptance they would be expected to be fully dedicated to the academy for the rest of their high school careers. While remaining with the same group of students and faculty throughout the duration of the academy, they would learn a wide skill-set essential to any successful engineering career. The academy would allow the students to participate in various rocketry and robotics competitions. They would be exposed to the realities of being an engineer while attending presentations by accomplished professionals in the field, and be given various job-shadowing opportunities.

For as long as Leo had gone to school in the United States, he had been recognized for his natural affinity for mathematics and the sciences:
“I was pretty involved with the GATE [Gifted and Talented Education] program in elementary and middle school,” he said. For him, the Academy was a perfect fit.

Ivan, on the other hand, always had a dream of working in aeronautics, was instantly drawn to the Academy, and quickly began the application process.

For any student, the academy was going to be a big commitment. It would count as an extra class, which meant that each student would have to agree to a larger work load, and summer school, in order to make-up the classes they no longer had time for in their schedules.

For Ivan and Leo, the academy would have to be balanced not only with the regular course-load and extracurricular, but also with the side jobs they were working in order to help their families stay afloat. Ivan was in charge of running his father’s small business for office equipment rentals, while Leo was expected to assist his father with his garage door repair business.

“My dad makes fun of our work a lot,” Leo said. “He calls it, ‘Bean-gineering.’”

However, the two did not give up. Alternatively, they became more united and stronger with every common hardship they faced.

“The people in the Academy with us became like our second families... We helped each other through any hard times,” said Ivan. “Mr. Robnett and the other teachers of the program became our mentors, I feel like they were the ones who actually cared.”

Their comradery and perseverance allowed them to graduate from Hueneme High School and complete the Academy with flying colors. Today, Ivan and Leo are attending Ventura City college, both working in order to pay for schooling, and studying Mechanical Engineering. By his third year, Ivan intends to study at either Cal State Long Beach or UC Santa Barbara. Leo also plans on transferring to UC Santa Barbara.

According to Robnett, Leo and Ivan are a testament to what programs like the California Partnership Academy (CPA) can do. He says, “The magic of the academy is this: you get a group of people and you make them into what is called a cohort. They take five to six classes together, become very close, have the same teachers each year, and become very comfortable with the faculty. If you show them that they are special, they will be more successful. The statistics prove this. Test scores are higher, there are fewer discipline issues, etc. It is not because they are necessarily smarter than other students, but because they are in this specific environment.”

However, while programs like the Academy have proven their potential in improving the education systems, they are constantly being threatened by funding changes. In fact, by the next fiscal year, Governor Jerry Brown plans to impose reforms to California’s education system that would contribute to the banishment of many of the grants that fund programs like the Academy.

Too often, Latino children from low-income communities are trapped in a cycle of poverty and educational inequity. However, when committed teachers, school leaders, parents and others provide necessary support, and inspire Latino children to aim higher academically, they perform dramatically better, reach their personal goals, and ultimately make critical contributions to society.

Ivan Vegas and Leo Palacios are undocumented and living in the United States. They did not choose to be in the situations they find themselves in, just like their parents did not chose the situation they were born into. However, they are working to make the best of their situations and attempting to rise above the obstacles placed before them. Programs like the California Partnership Academy have enabled them to do so.