San Marcos,
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From Teen Mom to College Graduate

By Eric Breier

Erica Alfaro will be easy to spot during Cal State San Marcos’ morning commencement ceremony on May 19.

Just look for the cap that has “We did it Luisito! 2%” proudly displayed.

Luisito refers to her 11-year-old son Luis. The 2 percent represents the small number of teenage mothers who earn their college degree, a group Erica is joining this month by earning her bachelor’s in psychology. But it’s more than a statistic for Erica. It’s what drove her to complete college and keep a promise she made to Luis on a cold November night when he was just 8 months old and the two of them were forced out of their home by Erica’s abusive boyfriend.

You’re going to make it. You’re going to do it. You’ll be part of that 2 percent.

Erica repeated the mantra countless times while at CSUSM.

She never thought of her journey as unique and certainly not inspirational -- at least not until she saw the reaction of classmates last fall to a presentation she gave in CSUSM professor Rita Naranjo’s Sociology 345 class.

Naranjo began the semester by sharing her life story with the class. Afterward, she told her students that their assignment was to put together a 25-minute presentation to share their life story.

Erica’s first thought was, “What can I share? There’s nothing interesting about me.”

It didn’t immediately occur to her to share what it was like discovering that she was pregnant at age 15. Or about how she dropped out of high school and moved from Oceanside to Fresno with the baby’s father. Or about the years of domestic violence. Or about that cold November night when her boyfriend threw Erica and Luis out to sleep on the street. Or about the epiphany she had as she tried to keep Luis warm that night. Or about how that night would put her on a decade-long path to her degree.

The more Erica thought about the assignment, the more her past came into focus. She ended up sharing those details of an often harrowing journey and she saw the impact it had on her classmates.

“I feel like my life has changed and I’m a different person,” Erica said. “I’m very happy with who I am. I don’t feel like a victim like I used to.

“When I shared my story, my classmates were asking me if they could give me a hug and they were asking me a lot of questions. One of them cried and said, ‘Wow, you truly inspired me.’ I never thought of my story as something that could inspire someone.”

You’re going to make it. You’re going to do it. You’ll be part of that 2 percent.

Long before Erica became aware of the statistical improbability that she would earn her bachelor’s, she was struggling to learn English.

Neither of Erica’s parents attended school as children. Both have spent their lives working in the fields trying to support three children. While Erica and her siblings were born in the United States, they spent most of their childhood living in Tijuana because they couldn’t afford to live here. When her parents brought them here permanently in hopes that their children would get a good education, Erica was 13 years old and spoke no English.

Erica was in an English Language Development program, but her grades suffered as she struggled to understand her teachers. She was often home alone with her siblings while her parents worked 12-hour days, six days a week.

At 15, Erica learned she was pregnant.

Erica dropped out of school and moved to Fresno with her boyfriend. She had no family or friends there. She was a teenager with a baby and a boyfriend who was using drugs and beating her on a daily basis. She never called the police out of fear that it would ultimately lead to a worse beating.

“Even though I needed help, I was scared,” she said. “I was just always afraid of asking for help.”

Then came that November night when Erica’s boyfriend threw her and Luis out into the cold. Erica sobbed as she repeatedly apologized to her son for the life they were living. As she sat outside holding Luis, her crying eventually subsided as she stared into the night sky and recalled two vivid memories.

She remembered going to work with her mother in the tomato fields a few years earlier. Erica had complained to her mother that day about the tiring work.

“My mom said, ‘This is our life. The only people who have a good life are the ones who got a good education,’ ” Erica said. “Even though my parents never went to school and they barely know how to read or write, they always told us that it was important to get a good education.”

The other memory was of a field trip to CSUSM during Erica’s first year at Lincoln Middle School in Oceanside. After spending most of her youth growing up in a poor Tijuana neighborhood, the size and scope of CSUSM was breathtaking.

Erica describes that November night as her rock bottom. It was the moment she knew she had to take action if she was going to change her life, and she knew an education was the only way to make it happen.

You’re going to make it. You’re going to do it. You’ll be part of that 2 percent.

Becoming part of the 2 percent wouldn’t be easy, but that night spurred Erica to find a way to finish high school. She researched a home school program and enrolled – no small feat for a minor with no parents or guardian present to sign off on all of the paperwork. Erica was also contending with a violent boyfriend who didn’t like the idea of her being in school.

“He always used to say, ‘You’re never going to make it. Do you really think you can finish high school? You don’t even know how to speak English.’ But I just kept going,” she said. “I did it for my son. I think I was able to get through because of my teachers.”

It was one of her teachers who encouraged Erica to continue her education after high school. She convinced her boyfriend to move back to Oceanside after graduating from high school, telling him it was only to be closer to family and that she had no intention of pursuing college.

But once back in Oceanside, she enrolled at MiraCosta College where she met Candy Owens, a counselor and facilitator at the school.

“I am beyond proud of Erica,” Owens said. “I have personally witnessed a beautiful transformation; from quiet and shy to an empowered young lady. When I first met her, she didn’t really speak to too many people. In class, she didn’t participate much. Throughout the semester I kept encouraging her to participate in campus clubs, and she did.”

Erica joined the Parents on Campus Club and the Latina Leadership Network Club, and Owens could see a difference.

“Her leadership skills blossomed and she started to believe that she had every right to be in college and that she was smart enough for college,” Owens said.

Owens gave Erica a journal to write down her goals. Among those goals was to stop living under domestic violence.

“That’s when I decided to leave,” said Erica, noting that her brother, a 2012 CSUSM graduate, also played an integral role in helping her escape the abusive relationship.

As Erica thrived at MiraCosta, CSUSM remained her long-term dream. She constantly told her brother how lucky he was to be at CSUSM, often asking to tag along with him just to walk around campus.

Though she longed to attend CSUSM, Erica said there was always self-doubt about whether she was smart enough.

“But it was also my dream, so I kept pushing,” she said. “My first semester here, I started crying when I got my student ID. I couldn’t believe I was here.”

You’re going to make it. You’re going to do it. You’ll be part of that 2 percent.

It was shortly after Erica started at CSUSM that she learned about the 2 percent. She started reading about teen pregnancy and discovered that fewer than 2 percent of teenage mothers earn a college degree by the time they’re 30.

“When I read that I got scared,” said Erica, now 27 years old. “I thought, ‘Wow, the possibilities are so small.’ I knew I needed to work harder to do it.”

It hasn’t been an easy road.

During Erica’s first semester at CSUSM, Luis was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Not only does she attend school full time, but she also works full time as a translator for a San Marcos-based company -- she smiles as she notes that it wasn’t so long ago that she didn’t speak any English and now she’s working as a translator. Her days begin at 3:30 a.m. so she can be to work by 5 each morning.

Twice a week, Erica goes from work to campus for six-plus hours of classes. She tries to take care of studying and homework before the weekend so that she can devote herself completely to Luis on Saturdays and Sundays. She is also serving as a mentor for high-risk teenage girls through Vista-based Solutions for Change.

Whenever she had doubts, whenever she thought about giving up, she repeated those familiar words:

You’re going to make it. You’re going to do it. You’ll be part of that 2 percent.

While Erica’s undergraduate days are coming to an end, her education will continue. She is planning to pursue her master’s in public administration at San Diego State next year with the goal of being part of a nonprofit women’s resource center or even founding one herself.

The experience of sharing her story in Naranjo’s class has inspired her to take communications classes to improve her public-speaking skills in hopes of sharing her story with others and serving as an example that it’s possible to escape domestic violence.

“Erica is an eager learner and listener,” Naranjo said. “She may be quiet and soft spoken, but she is courageous and passionate beyond measure, which brings her to have a powerful message when spoken.

“I am truly inspired by her because she has shown dedication in many aspects of her life as a mother, daughter, student and role model in the community. I consider her an amazing ally on this path to empower, build, and create community connections and well-being.”

Erica’s ex-boyfriend hasn’t been part of her or Luis’ life for years. They haven’t seen him since she graduated from MiraCosta. She heard he was in jail with several more years to serve.

Luis, now a fifth grader, will be there on May 19 for his mom’s graduation. Before Erica walks across the commencement stage to shake the hand of President Karen Haynes, she will be the student speaker for the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral & Social Sciences morning ceremony. As she did in Naranjo’s class, she’ll share the story of her journey from pregnant teen to college graduate.

It will be another step in fulfilling the promise she made to Luis over a decade ago when they sat in the cold and she told him she would go back to school, free him of the life they were in and do her best to make him proud of her.

Luis smiles as he affirms his pride in his mom’s accomplishment. He hopes to follow in her footsteps and attend CSUSM, perhaps beginning a journey to his current goal of becoming a doctor.

Much like the personal mantra of joining the 2 percent of teenage mothers who earn their college degree, Erica has an oft-repeated mantra for Luis.

“I’m always telling him, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you’re willing to work hard,’ ” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why I always try my best, because I want to inspire my son. I can’t tell him to go after his dreams if I’m not following my dreams. And my dream is to be a role model to him and a role model to other people in my community.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is this really happening? Am I really graduating?’ I just can’t believe it.”