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Cayo Gonzalez
Cayo Gonzalez Credit: Jonathan Zhang

“Echalé ganas, mijo,” my grandpa would often say — apply yourself and put efforts into your studies. Throughout my childhood in Northern California, this phrase was ubiquitous; I’d hear it at Mass, at the taquería, and certainly at home. Whenever I met family members for the first time, I came to expect these three words.

Talking on the phone with Puyo on the last day of summer break before flying back to school, I found comfort in finally hearing what I had yearned for all along — “echalé ganas.”

Vacation officially over, I noted the familiar sights as I drove to San José International Airport: the teenager helping his parents with their churro stand on the street corner, the irritated drivers waiting to fill up at the gas station, the middle school already back in session.

It was here that I saw teachers and staff once again hanging banners from different universities. In the shadow of Silicon Valley’s success and affluence is East San Jose, whose schools are not celebrated. Eighty-five percent of students in the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District receive free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly four out of every five identify as Hispanic or Latino. Schools in the area encourage students to further their education by emphasizing college, in banners, flags and murals. Despite these efforts, high school dropout rates remain high.

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I’m one of the lucky few. Whereas I received financial aid to attend both a private prep school and now an Ivy League university, many students in East San Jose are simply told to “stay in school.” There’s a world of difference between that sentiment and “echalé ganas,” though on the surface they seem similar. As a low-income, first-generation Latino college student, I too was seemingly due the gloomy inheritance of a meager “stay in school.”

“My first few days of classes quickly exposed me to the educational inequality that scars this nation.”

English was not the first language I would master — a fact that is also true of many other students in East San Jose. When my parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico some two decades ago, they knew not a word of English. The formal education they brought with them was also limited.

Given her lack of familiarity with the United States, my mom didn’t know what exactly to do, but she knew she had to do something to ensure that I — her firstborn child — had ample opportunity to succeed. This took the form of her incredible persistence and investment in my education. In elementary school, when I brought home reading material and worksheets, she’d sit with me at great length to make sure I understood the lessons.

Knowing my English was behind that of my peers, my mom reached out to my Kindergarten teacher for extra reading material. I would bring the reading back with me, and I would read it over with my mom multiple times. She practically learned English alongside me! Her gradual acquisition of English came not so much for her own sake, but as a result of her investment in my future, where English mastery would be essential.

Instead of the meager “stay in school” sentiment that others were hearing, the “echalé ganas” that pervaded my life was supplemented with extra practice outside normal class hours with my mom. At some point in middle school, my mom could no longer provide the direct help with class material to which I had grown accustomed. She instead provided me with the spirit of “echalé ganas” that has motivated me to overcome challenges in school, and that has proven to be more than enough.

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Her investment in my education has never waned. Throughout middle school, I heard about a prep school that was highly praised. My mom supported my dream of attending this prep school, not least because the high schools in my immediate area were mediocre.

Knowing that a zip code should not determine a student’s future, Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-male Jesuit high school, provided me the financial aid necessary to attend. My first few days of classes quickly exposed me to the educational inequality that scars this nation.

There I was surrounded by peers, many white, who came from affluent families. A great majority had parents well established in their professions, and naturally by being raised in such environments, many of them were advanced in their studies. Once again, all my mom could provide was “echalé ganas,” but by that point I needed nothing else. She had set a solid foundation, and though I felt behind during those first few days, I trusted that I could catch up and thrive.

As I caught up, my fundamentals grew stronger, and I too would start benefiting from the perks of attending a prep school. The most immediate benefit was the atmosphere. My peers were intelligent and driven; and, importantly, these attributes were celebrated at Bellarmine—unlike what I perceived at the schools in my area.

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Of course, the school had a lot of resources, which often took the form of connections. Because of Bellarmine, I was able to spend the summer after my senior year doing research in a cancer lab at Stanford University. The skills I learned there have carried over to the lab work I do at Columbia University. When I arrived in New York City for my first semester in the fall of 2016, I was well equipped with the foundation and study skills to do well.

“Students from all backgrounds, but especially those who have too often been left behind in a system that has historically favored the white and wealthy, should not merely be staying in school — they must be thriving in school.”

My experience — going from few life prospects to bountiful opportunity — is not shared by many other students with similar backgrounds, and this is incredibly disappointing. I can’t claim to have the panacea for educational inequality, but I know something must change. As a society, we must offer students from underserved populations more than a meager “stay in school.”

Affirmative action in college admissions is one earnest attempt to remedy the educational inequalities that many students face. Reflecting on my own experience, I fear that affirmative action often comes too late. Intervention needs to happen early on for an under-resourced student to succeed.

Many low-income parents work incredibly long and odd hours to make ends meet. Because of this, their presence in their children’s lives is often not as strong — precisely because they need to work so their offspring can have a brighter tomorrow. Local and national programs should be set up to provide the same investment and belief in each child that my mom showed me as I grew and developed. With such a foundation, all students — whether undocumented, Hispanic, African American, first generation or from any other disadvantaged background — will have more favorable prospects for a better future.

When talking about the importance of school, many Latino households don’t simply say “stay in school” in Spanish. Instead, they more frequently say something along the lines of what Puyo, my grandpa, said: “echalé ganas.” This shift in language and thought is necessary and needs to be reflected in concrete actions.

We owe it to the children of the United States to be genuinely interested in their educations, and from well before they even start formal schooling. Our nation’s future depends on how well we educate our young people today. Students from all backgrounds, but especially those who have too often been left behind in a system that has historically favored the white and wealthy, should not merely be staying in school — they must be thriving in school.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Cayo Gonzalez is a sophomore majoring in biology at Columbia University. Interested in research, medicine and education, Gonzalez hopes to become a physician. In his free time, he enjoys reading, going to the gym, and following both college and professional football.

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